2020 - Crisis Leadership During the Coronavirus Pandemic and Xenophobia

Global & Culturally Diverse Leadership in the 21st Century
Crisis Leadership During the Coronavirus Pandemic and Xenophobia

By Jean Lau Chin

Jean Lau ChinJean Lau Chin, EdD, ABPP is a professor at Adelphi University in New York, and was the 2018 Fulbright Scholar and Distinguished Chair to the University of Sydney, Australia for her research on global and diverse leadership. She has held leadership roles as Dean at Adelphi University, Systemwide Dean at Alliant International University, Executive Director of South Cove Community Health Center and Co-Director of Thom Mental Health Clinic. Her scholarship on diversity leadership, women’s issues, diversity and cultural competence, and psychotherapy includes 18 books and many publications. She is the first Asian American to be licensed as a psychologist in Massachusetts.

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on 11 March, and we in the U.S. took quick action. Universities and museums closed; events were cancelled or postponed. Social distancing is now the norm as we prevent the further spread of the virus throughout the world by avoiding social gatherings. Other countries are also taking such precautions with nationwide lock downs in Italy, Spain, and France. China was first to respond with what the World Health Organization called “perhaps the most ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment effort in history,” including closing down manufacturing sectors, sharing information widely, executing mass testing, and quarantining millions of people. Using a command and control leadership approach, it quickly and effectively resulted in a steady decrease and containment of the virus. Italy’s leadership, on the other hand, demonstrated a slow response and lack of coordination. While initially conveying that everything was under control, they shut down schools, sporting events, and tourism sites two days later. In the U.S., leaders were first concerned with attempting to control the narrative by downplaying the seriousness of the pandemic until March 13th, when the U.S. declared a national emergency. Today, the lesson from Italy and the U.S. is clear — in a crisis, leaders can create panic and distrust when they rapidly change their messaging. When leaders attempt to reassure by underestimating the potential spread of the virus, or do not act in coordination, trust and transparency erodes. Crises are best faced with cohesive, decisive, and consistent action from our leaders.

Crisis leadership during this pandemic makes acute the importance of culturally diverse leadership in the 21st century. Never before have we seen the need for such immediate and quick leadership. But, while the coronavirus brings home how interconnected we are today, at the same time it has resulted in age-old scapegoating and blaming “the other” for its onset. Many individuals initially and continue to refer to it as the “Chinese Virus,” the “Wuhan Virus,” a “Foreign Virus.” These phrases reflect underlying xenophobia towards members of our Asian community. Viruses do not have nationalities or ethnic appearances — so why this unwarranted discrimination towards ethnic Chinese and other Asian Americans? Why the harmful stereotyping and misinformation about coronavirus that implies Chinese and other Asian Americans are a disease carrying group? As you've likely heard, in the U.S., Chinese and Asian Americans have become the target of physical and verbal attacks, xenophobia, and microaggressions. Here are a few examples:

  1. A woman wearing a face mask was punched and kicked by a man who called her "diseased.” Excerpted from NBC News (February 5, 2020).
  2. “A 16-year-old boy in California's San Fernando Valley was physically attacked this week by bullies in his high school who accused him of having the coronavirus — simply because he is Asian American.” Excerpted from CBS News (February 14, 2020).
  3. A Facebook message encouraged people not to patron Asian businesses stating: “We urge citizens to stay away from Chinese supermarkets, shops, fast food outlets, Restaurant and Business.” Excerpted from the New York Daily News (March 4, 2020)
  4. A woman was confronted on the subway by somebody yelling, "Where is your corona mask you Asian b—h," before punching the woman and dislocating her jaw. Excerpted from the New York Post (March 10, 2020).

These 2020 examples show how easily people tend to scapegoat and target minority groups, in this case Asians, as a threat to the Western world during times of crisis. Scapegoating becomes a prevalent phenomenon in times of crisis when we categorize people based on stereotypes, blame victims for their plight, and maintain an outgroup bias of negatively treating those perceived as different. In the United States, we have seen the Chinese Massacre (1871), the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), Executive Order 9066 (1942) that resulted in the mass incarceration of Japanese individuals, and Executive Order 13769 (2017) which banned the entry into the United States from several Muslim majority countries.

The examples reinforce how important it is that our leaders be culturally competent in order to avoid and condemn such tendencies to blame and ostracize “the other”. Our leaders should address the vulnerability and stress experienced by all members of society and not deflect the crisis at hand by “otherizing” it as a foreign influence. Crisis leadership is not only about acting with cohesive, decisive, and consistent action to eliminate the coronavirus, but also about acting for the interests of all so we can combat the physical health and psychological consequences of this pandemic together. To be a culturally competent and inclusive leader, be the model and set the example. Be kind to those who choose to wear masks for protection. Condemn the bullying, stereotyping, and ostracizing of Asians as the cause of this crisis.


Capatides, Christina. (14 February 2020). “Bullies Attack Asian American Teen at School, Accusing Him of Having Coronavirus.” CBS News. Retrieved from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/coronavirus-bullies-attack-asian-teen-los-angeles-accusing-him-of-having-coronavirus/

Celona, Larry. (10 March 2020) "Unhinged Woman Slugs Asian Lady for not Wearing Coronavirus Mask." New York Post. Retrieved from https://nypost.com/2020/03/10/unhinged-woman-slugs-asian-lady-for-not-wearing-coronavirus-mask/

Glazer, R. (10 March 2020). “Coronavirus Is a Massive Challenge for World Leaders. Here’s What China, Italy and the United States Teach Us About Leadership.” Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/robertglazer/2020/03/10/coronavirus-is-a-massive-challenge-for-world-leaders-heres-what-china-italy-and-the-united-states-teach-us-about-leadership/#35c3e2e148a4

Li, David K. (5 February 2020). "Coronavirus Hate Attack: Woman in Face Mask Allegedly Assaulted by Man Who Calls Her 'Diseased'." NBC News. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/coronavirus-hate-attack-woman-face-mask-allegedly-assaulted-man-who-n1130671

Shahrigian, Shant. (4 March 2020). “Assembly Staffer Fired Over Anti-Asian Comments Amid Coronavirus Fears.” New York Daily News. Retrieved from https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/assembly-staffer-fired-over-anti-asian-comments-amid-coronavirus-fears/ar-BB10KyVI

Editors Note: Jean Lau Chin, EdD, ABPP, Professor of Psychology, Gordon F. Derner School of Psychology, Adelphi University and Joseph E. Trimble, PhD, Distinguished University Professor, Department of Psychology, Western Washington University. Correspondence concerning newsletter articles and themes for this column should be addressed to Jean Lau Chin. Email: chin@adelphi.edu, Telephone: 516.877.4185 or Joseph E. Trimble. Email: trimble@wwu.edu; Telephone: 360-650-3058.