Virus Bias: What Leaders and Companies Can Do to Prevent It

Categories: Global Leadership

Post by Mercedes Martin, Practice Group Leader, Inclusion & Diversity at Aperian Global

Virus Bias: Origins

Contagion is an ancient source of dread, and virus bias is born from the desperate yet misguided human search for causes, cures, and survival. During turbulent times, suspicion tends to fall on those who are different: racial or ethnic minorities, followers of other religious faiths, the disabled, and so on. It is tempting to subject such groups to persecution and then declare the problem solved. Facing yet another malady with the coronavirus – this time global in scale – we must ensure that the solutions are science-based, inclusive, and legally sound. 

Virus Bias: The Plague and Anti-Semitism

For most of recorded history, there has been limited knowledge of why people fall ill and die. The medieval plague, for example, was a terrifying epidemic that spread like wildfire in the 1300s and wiped out between 30 and 60 million people across Asia, Europe, and North Africa, recurring periodically in later centuries. Frantic residents of affected locations attributed its cause to planetary misalignment, bad air, sinful deeds to be cured by self-flagellation, or, most lethally, to evil conduct by others.

Jewish populations in Europe were among those blamed for spreading the disease, while some Muslims viewed the plague as punishment for non-believers. Virus bias frequently was lethal for such persecuted minorities, with thousands of Jews murdered by angry mobs on multiple occasions in cities like Strasbourg and Cologne, a prologue to the large-scale Nazi genocide of a later era. 

Virus Bias in the U.S.: HIV and the “4-H Club”

The dread of contagion and the frantic, often misguided search for countermeasures continues in the modern era, even with all our medical advances. Today’s virus bias resurgence brings back memories of the early days of the HIV epidemic and its impact on the Haitian community. In my cross-cultural nursing program at the University of Miami, I recall hearing the then-widespread notion that “every Haitian might be a carrier.”

In the early 1980s, after approximately twenty Haitian immigrants in Miami were diagnosed as having the frightening human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that was beginning to affect other groups at the time, the Center for Disease Control designated Haitian nationality as one of four major risk factors. The popular press in the United States then sensationalized this with the infamous “4-H Club” label, which included homosexuals, hemophiliacs, heroin addicts, and Haitians.

The stigma associated with this label was disastrous for all of the afflicted groups. For Haitians, it was devastating not only for tourism and commerce in Haiti but for Haitian immigrants in the U.S. As an article in the New Yorker noted, “Suddenly, every Haitian was suspected of having AIDS.” In the U.S., sensationalism fueled by fear gave rise to widespread job discrimination plus school bullying of Haitian children as young as kindergarteners. Haitians everywhere were an easy target; as one Haitian physician struggling to address the disease said, “Because the United States is rich, white and big, it thinks it can make a bouc emissaire – a scapegoat – of us. Haiti is poor and black and small. If our reputation is maligned, what can we do?” 

The Coronavirus: Fear and Fact

Fear is often far more contagious than the disease itself and outpaces scientific fact-finding. The dread of contagion also tends to arouse our instinct to protect insiders from outsiders, a distinction that is still part of the modern bias checklist. It is always tempting to look for scapegoats and simplistic solutions. 

We can blame and punish foreigners and even those who appear to look foreign, the blunders of incompetent government officials, or hapless cruise ship passengers who had been confined to floating isolation. However, the only effective solutions have always been social and scientific: quarantine, medical treatment, protective gear, preventive measures such as the cancellation of public events, rigorous personal hygiene, and, ultimately, vaccines as these get developed.

Avoiding Virus Bias in the Workplace

Preventive steps are likely to become harsher and more imperative as the coronavirus spreads worldwide. Yet fear-based bias against particular groups has no place in this agenda, and the likely outcome in a corporate context is claims of discrimination and lawsuits against employers by individuals or groups who feel they have been discriminated against for no good reason.

Employers should be focused on two specific areas: 

  • Hate Crimes: Asians in the U.S. and Europe have already reported a variety of hate crimes against them, even though, in many cases, their families are full citizens and have resided locally for several generations. These actions include verbal abuse, punching, coughing, spitting, and refusal to provide accommodation. Alleged hate crimes have recently occurred in numerous locations, including New York, Los Angeles, Texas, and London. Asian-American businesses have also noted that customers are staying away in large numbers. Even non-Chinese have been assaulted on the mistaken grounds that they are Chinese. Every business must work to prevent these types of hate crimes among employees or between employees and customers, whether they appear as overt aggression or in more subtle forms, as they can undermine workplace cohesion and provide grounds for legal claims.
  • Race-Based Discrimination: If an Asian-American employee, for example, is asked to avoid returning to the workplace after visiting relatives abroad, while Caucasian employees who have recently vacationed in Italy are not, this could be viewed as discriminatory. Such an uneven application of quarantine provisions may be grounds for bringing discrimination claims against employers. Employers with legitimate reasons to enforce quarantine practices or social distancing must do this in an even-handed, scientifically sound manner that focuses on stemming the spread of the virus and not ethnicity or race. It is appropriate to ask where someone has traveled, but not to assume that they represent a hazard simply based on their appearance. 

Sensible announcements and recommendations from institutions such as companies and schools are also a good sign, as are the cancellations of events that would bring large numbers of people into close and crowded contact. Fear-mongering from politicians, the media, or any other quarter could lead us down a darker path of persecuting ethnic scapegoats that is temporarily gratifying to some while distracting the populace from real solutions.

Today’s primary workplace challenge is to accelerate sensible prevention and treatment of the virus without succumbing to the contagious virus of fear that leads people to turn on each other. The coronavirus itself sets an ironic example. Although it is especially lethal to older people or those with underlying conditions, it does not discriminate between people of any race or creed. For organizations with “inclusion” among their values, now is the time to put this value to the test.


Leverage Aperian Global’s executive coaching services to help your company combat “Virus Bias.” Our executive coaches are experienced with crisis management and are available to deliver coaching for executives in many different countries and languages.

We know how to support leaders and teams that are trying to combine inclusive actions and organizational change to achieve their goals in the current environment.


Mercedes Martin
Practice Group Leader of Inclusion and Diversity

Mercedes Martin is Aperian Global’s Practice Group Leader of Inclusion and Diversity and has over two decades of experience with Strategic Business Consulting, Inclusion Coaching, and Global Leadership Development. She sheds new light on the topics of business transformation, inclusion, and innovation.

Ms. Martin holds an MSc in Leadership Development from the University of San Francisco and a BSc in Transcultural Nursing from the University of Miami. She also holds numerous executive coaching and consulting accreditations, including Master Corporate Executive Coach (MCEC), Center for Creative Leadership 360 Assessment, and Coaching for Results Certifications.

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