Racial Bias in Perceptions of Disease and Policy

Narratives about Africa as dark, depraved, and diseased justified the exploitation of African land and people. Today, these narratives may still have a hold on people’s fears about disease. We test this in three (pre-COVID-19) experiments. Across studies, we find that participants report greater worry about a pandemic originating in Africa (vs. elsewhere). In turn, they report greater support for travel bans and for loosening abortion restrictions. We then document these narratives in an archival study of newspaper articles of the 2015–2016 Zika pandemic. We find that articles were more negative—for example, they included more death-related words—if they mentioned Africa. Finally, we replicate the experimental results within the COVID-19 context, using a representative sample. Taken together, the studies make clear that reactions to pandemics are biased, and in a way consistent with historical narratives about race and Africa.