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  • Writer's pictureThink Upstream

When scapegoating goes viral in the age of COVID-19

In this episode of The Plan B podcast, we talk with the Senior Director of 6 Degrees at the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, David Leonard, about what happens when a pandemic goes looking for someone to blame.

A man in colourful clothing points at the camera.

Ralph Benmergui

Perhaps it's simply human nature to look for a scapegoat when things go wrong.

  We can’t seem to help looking for someone to blame. For example, let’s take the common cold.

That’s a virus. How many times have I heard someone say "I caught a cold. I think it was from your Aunt Martha. She was sneezing when she came over.”

Honestly who knows how you caught that cold. It could have been from the drinking fountain at the park, a handshake with a new work colleague, your close talking sister, or yes, your Aunt Martha. 

Well as David Leonard points out, when the stakes are  life and death and our fear of contagions entering our bodies is palpable, we sometimes give sway to our darker nature to look for answers. For someone to blame.

David reminds us that during the Bubonic Plague, which killed one third of the global population, groups like the Jews were accused of conspiring to kill their neighbours, ridiculously, to drink the blood of their children.

Even the Spanish Flu wasn’t Spanish. In fact, the only reason it was dubbed that in Europe was that Spain was a neutral country during the years of the outbreaks while the rest of Europe was embroiled in the carnage of World War One. To add the killer flu to the list of woes these other countries had to bear was considered too much, so Spain took the hit. Again, absurd.

Today we see a different but familiar pointing of fingers and mislabelling. In America, descriptions like the "Kung Flu" and the "Wuhan virus" emerged quickly as the virus reached their shores.

Since then, organizations like the Institute for Canadian Citizenship have noted a sizeable rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, anti-semitic attacks have risen once again, and fear of the other has increased.

Mr. Leonard reminds us that there is another side to the pandemic—one that has us singing from our balconies, checking in on neighbours, and holding our loved ones closer when we can.

Yes, there are ugly tropes being bandied about on social media, but there are also shards of light and inclusion. 

Like everything else about this virus, there is a duality. Crisis and opportunity. David Leonard believes that we will, for the most part, choose our better angels.


Ralph Benmergui is a broadcaster and interviewer and the host of Upstream’s Plan B podcast. Plan B is made possible in part by the Government of Canada. 


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