Addressing stigma: How emergency management can contribute to developing COVID-19 social countermeasures

By Jack Rozdilsky and Aaida Mamuji

Since the first recorded case of COVID-19 in Canada on January 25, 2020, the first ten months of the pandemic have taken the lives of over 10,000 Canadians. The nation is currently besieged with autumn waves of community spread, with over 216,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Canada being reported by late-October (PHAC, 2020).

In response to the pandemic, numerous actions have been taken to counter or offset the impacts of COVID-19, known as countermeasures. These countermeasures have included pharmaceutical and medical actions, such as vaccines and treatments; the implementation of new policies and regulations, such as restrictions on international travel and single-site orders; and efforts to address the social impacts of the pandemic. These latter social countermeasures include public health responses, communication strategies, and public education efforts, all of which encompass actions that individuals and communities can take to react to the virus (CIHR, 2020). This article focuses on social countermeasures to combat misinformation, stigma, and fear associated with COVID-19.

A recent research project supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research aims to explore how to shield communities from the ravages of the pandemic through the use of social countermeasures to reduce vulnerability (Mamuji et al., 2020). In particular, the project seeks to address anti-Chinese discrimination known as Sinophobia, by attempting to destigmatize diaspora Chinese communities in the Greater Toronto Area. Based on initial findings from that project, this article provides a short background on COVID-19 stigma, suggests moving from stigma to an understanding of complexity and capacity, and concludes with a call to action for emergency managers to consider how they can contribute to efforts aimed towards reducing COVID-19 stigma.

COVID-19 stigma

As early as February 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) highlighted the emergence of instances of Coronavirus stigmatization among specific populations (WHO, 2020). As the virus was beginning to emerge on a global basis, WHO warned that stigma can contribute to more severe health problems, ongoing transmission, and difficulties controlling infectious diseases during an epidemic.

One aspect of the pandemic stigma that is evident in Canada is COVID-19 related discrimination targeting the Chinese community. Due to the geographic origins of the first major prevalence of COVID-19 in Wuhan, China, there have been instances of persons having underlying tendencies of discrimination, xenophobia, or racism, equating COVID-19 illness and risk with Asian persons. Discriminatory actions have ranged from subtle microaggressions to outright physical violence. In one well-publicized incident in the Greater Toronto Area, a man became agitated when asked to don a mask in an Asian food store. He then went on a verbal anti-Asian racist tirade which spread rapidly via social media outlets (Miller & Fraser, 2020). Such discrimination has resulted in increased mental health stresses experienced by those who are ethnically Chinese in Canada (Wu et al., 2020).

Illustration by Carime Quezada, HazNet

Moving from stigma to complexity and capacity

Acts of discrimination related to COVID-19 are part of the underlying structural racism in Canadian society. The reporting and tracking of incidents of COVID-19 discrimination, as does, is important as it establishes the extent of the problem. But in terms of the next steps, when the conversation starts and stops at the reporting of experiences of stigma, the narrative remains the victimization of the community. Focusing solely on the impacted community and the stigmatizing behaviour of perpetrators can lead to normalization of the experience. This can result in situations where those with discriminatory tendencies take the growing number of incidents as justification for continued displays of Sinophobia, resulting in further marginalization of the community. Simultaneously, those witnessing such discrimination may find it challenging to constructively move society past the status quo, resigning to the fact that such sentiments are ingrained in society. As such, we argue in favour of the expansion of the narrative on anti-Chinese stigma during COVID-19 to include a more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of Chinese diaspora communities, thereby expanding the scope of the story being told.

Initial findings from the study suggest that the narrative can be expanded from one of anti-Chinese stigma to a narrative of understanding the complexities of and leveraging the capacities present in the Chinese community. During the spring and summer of 2020, part of the project focused on the Greater Toronto Area, where over 80 individuals identifying as being ethnically Chinese were interviewed. The goal was to better understand their lived experience during the pandemic.

In terms of complexity, it is important to recognize that the Chinese community is not homogenous, which is in contrast to how many media outlets often discuss the community. Toronto’s Chinese community is diverse in terms of geographic origins with persons from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and elsewhere. It is also multifaceted in attitudes towards public affairs in both Canada and Asia. In other words, for Toronto, there is not one contingent of persons who can be said to represent the Chinese community.

In terms of capacity, the project documented early actions taken in Toronto demonstrating the home-grown ability of the Chinese community to protect themselves and protect others during the very early days of the pandemic in Canada. For example, early preventative actions such as businesses requiring employees to wear masks and having their temperature checked took place in the Chinese enclaves of Toronto in winter, well before such actions became commonplace at other businesses across the Toronto region in the summer (Figure 1). Physical distancing was practiced when some individuals and families that had traveled to China over the winter holiday voluntarily self-isolated upon their return to Canada. Some members of the Chinese diaspora community decided to forgo social gatherings as early as late January, including Chinese New Year celebrations. These actions reflect the adoption of responsible emergency management and public health actions that are embraced as part of the Chinese culture and are informed in part by efforts to manage previous disease outbreaks such as H2N2 and SARS.

Figure 1: The capacity of the Chinese community to cope with the pandemic is illustrated by the early adoption of COVID-19 safety protocols, well before other segments of the community. On the left is a February 12, 2020 image with signs advocating for mask-wearing at a Chinese business in Toronto.  On the right is an August 14 image announcing mask-wearing requirements at a Markham retail store that became effective on July 17.

(Left – Photograph from research participant used with permission / Right – Photograph from Jack Rozdilsky used with permission)

How emergency managers can contribute

While instances of anti-Asian discrimination due to COVID-19 have been well-documented during the first half of 2020, such unfortunate acts are only one portion of the story of how the Chinese diaspora community has been coping with COVID-19. Emergency managers and decision-makers can play an important role in ‘flipping the script’ to change how the broader society views the story of the Chinese diaspora communities’ relationship to COVID-19. This can be done by highlighting the actions that members of the Chinese community took to help mitigate the spread of the disease early on in the pandemic, and by fostering spaces of learning and exchange between members of the community and those officials responsible for handling pandemic response.  Such efforts would not only aid in the development of initiatives and efforts to destigmatize the Chinese community, but also acknowledge the capacity that the community has in assisting broader society in overcoming COVID-19.

Going into 2021, the project will be reaching out to the women and men of Canada’s emergency management community to explore how the strengths of our profession can add value to pandemic response and recovery by enhancing social countermeasures, especially in addressing stigma. These efforts include, but are not limited to, efforts to inform media messaging, public education campaigns, and events that promote community cohesion. More information on the project can be found at

By better understanding the complexity, as well as the capacity of communities, emergency managers and public health officials, can play a key role in preventing the unfair targeting of specific ethnic groups ahead of the next infectious disease outbreak.


This research was funded by the Government of Canada, Canadian Institutes of Health Research under Operating Grant: Canadian 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) Rapid Research Funding Opportunity – Public Health Response and Its Impact – No. 202002OV7


Canadian Institutes of Health Research, CIHR. (2020). Government of Canada invests $27M in coronavirus research – Details of the funded projects. [online] Available at:–details-of-the-funded-projects.html [Accessed 22 October 2020].

Mamuji, A., Rozdilsky, J., Lee C., Mwarumba, N., Tubula, M, Chu, T. (2020). Expanding the narrative on anti-Chinese stigma during COVID-19: Initial report. [online] Toronto, Canada: Disaster and Emergency Management Program, York University. Available at: [Accessed 4 August 2020].

Miller, J. and Fraser, T. (2020). Police charge Mississauga man after viral video shows racist rant in supermarket mask dispute. Toronto Star. [online].  Available at: [Accessed 20 July 2020].

Public Health Agency of Canada, PHAC. (2020). Coronavirus disease (COVID-19): Outbreak update [online] Available at: [Accessed 26 October 2020].

World Health Organization, WHO. (2020). Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) Situation Report – 35 dated 24 February 2020. [online] Geneva, Switzerland: WHO. Available at: [Accessed 28 July 2020].

Wu, C., Wilkes, R., Qian, Y. and Kennedy, E. (2020). Acute Discrimination and East Asian-White Mental Health Gap during COVID-19 in Canada. [online]. Available at: [Accessed 26 October 2020].



Jack L. Rozdilsky, Ph.D. ( and Aaida A. Mamuji, Ph.D. ( are both Associate Professors of Disaster and Emergency Management at York University. Dr. Rozdilsky is a co-principal investigator and Dr. Mamuji is the research team lead investigator for a CIHR funded project which is part of the Government of Canada’s research effort to address the 2019 Novel Coronavirus outbreak.

Jack L. Rozdilsky

Aaida A. Mamuji