Coronavirus: Fostering Empathy in an Interconnected World 

This activity aims to cultivate students' empathy for those who face bias or discrimination stemming from the coronavirus by inviting them to reflect on the words of those affected. 

To the Teacher:  

This lesson, which uses a circle format, aims to cultivate students' empathy for those who face bias or discrimination stemming from the coronavirus by inviting them to reflect on the words of those affected. 

In addition, please also see these related resources:

  • These guidelines if students at your school have been targeted because of  virus fears. addressing this challenge.
  • This lesson provides factual information for students about the coronavirus,
  • Review these general guidelines for discussing difficult or upsetting issues.

Teacher Backgrounder

Since China first announced the outbreak of a “mysterious pneumonia” in Wuhan in late December, the novel virus, 2019-nCoV, has continued to spread at an increasingly accelerated rate.  As of February 1, 2020, the highly contagious respiratory illness has spread to 19 countries, with eight cases confirmed in the U.S.  The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak a global emergency. 

According to CNN:

“As they seek to contain the virus, authorities in multiple countries are balancing the need for warnings against the risk of creating global panic.  However, there are signs that's already happening, with face masks selling out in stores and people locking themselves at home. Some people in central China – the epicenter of the outbreak – are desperately taking any flight out, regardless of destination, as governments worldwide suspend flights from China and impose restrictions on travelers from the mainland.

But the panic has also taken another, more familiar form, with the re-emergence of old racist tropes that portray Asians, their food, and their customs as unsafe and unwelcome.”

Unfortunately, as the fear of contagion has mounted around the world, so has anti-Chinese sentiment. According to The Hill:

 “Intentional spread of frightening and exaggerated rumors in order to arouse public fear about an issue, has always been an unfortunate side effect of … deadly viruses, such as with the Ebola crisis in 2014 or the spread of Swine Flu in 2009. As public fear continues to be stoked and radicalized, so can racism and harmful bias against those whose origins align with the starting point of said virus. 

Not just in the United States but across the world, people are reporting cases of blatant racism, despite the fact that many of those who are now being targeted have never even stepped foot in China. Some are not even of Chinese descent, but from different Asian origins.”

For this reason, it is important to provide accurate information about the virus and realize that for now, the risk of contracting the coronavirus in the U.S. remains extremely low.  According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) you’re much more likely to catch the flu. This year alone, the CDC estimates that at least 19 million people in the U.S. have gotten sick with the flu.  Of those, 180,000 have been hospitalized and 10,000 have died.

NPR reported epidemiologist Brandon Brown explaining that “Last year we had 34,000 deaths from flu …. On average the flu is responsible for somewhere between 12,000 and 6,1000 deaths each year. And that’s just in the United States.” According to Brown:  

“A flu shot is your best way to protect yourself against getting the flu …. [And t]here's another very effective strategy for fending off the flu virus — one that could also help protect against the novel coronavirus if it were to spread within the U.S, Brown says. …. Wash your hands. You need to lather up and wash for at least 20 seconds to make this work….”

Additional information about the coronavirus can be found on the CDC website at:

The New York Times pulled together summary of key facts about the coronavirus:

Vox also created a resource entitled “8 Questions about the Coronavirus Answered”:


Opening Ceremony

Project the tweet below on the board or print it out in place it in your center piece:


Invite students to read the tweet and think about, in silence, what they know about the context within which this tweet is being shared.  In silence reflect on:

  • How much do they know about what happened in China over the past few months? 
  • What's been happening around the world as a result? 
  • How do they think this young man is feeling?   Why?

Explain that we’ll come back to this tweet at the end of the circle. 

Today’s circle will be about the coronavirus that’s been in the news and how it’s been impacting people around the world. 

Ask for a show of hands to find out if students are familiar with the news story.  If not, consider turning to What We Don’t Know Frightens Us: The Coronavirus & Scapegoating for information about the spread of the virus and the scapegoating that has accompanied it. 


A Circle on Empathy

Before beginning the series of circle go-rounds:


  • See this PDF handout for a set of quotes from people around the world about the spread of the coronavirus (The quotes are also included at the end of this lesson.)
  • Print out a copy of these voices and cut them into slips, one slip for each quote. Place the slips in an envelope and send the envelope around your circle as your talking piece. (Alternate method: give each student a slip or slips and go around the circle without using a talking piece.)


Go round 1: Voices from around the world

When students receive the envelope, invite them to take out a quote, read it to themselves to make sure they’re comfortable reading it out loud to the group, then either read it out loud or put it back in the envelope and pick a different slip. Ask students to hold onto their slip as they send the envelope around so as not to repeat voices. 

Go round 2:  Share one word about how you’re feeling now

When all students have had a chance to read one of the voices out loud, send the talking piece (envelope) around a second time, inviting them to share what it was like to listen to those voices.  How did it make them feel?  This time, have students place their slips back into the envelope as it goes around.

Go round 3: What voice resonated with you and why?

Send the talking piece around again, asking students what voices resonated with them and why.

Go round 4: Reflections, additions, connections

If time allows, send the talking piece around one more time, asking students to reflect on what they heard in the circle so far, add anything they’d like to share, or make any connections to what others shared. 


Closing Ceremony

Ask students to look again at the tweet from earlier (see below) and consider the same questions again in silence: 

  • How much do they know about what happened in China over the past few months? 
  • What's been happening around the world as a result? 
  • How do they think this young man is feeling?   Why?

Next, invite students to write a short message to this young man – or to any of the other people you heard from today. 

Lastly, invite students in a go round to read their messages out loud.




Quotes on the Coronavirus

(Also see this pdf version)

Cut the following quotes into strips and place them in a large envelope for students to select.



“’It's hysteria,’" said one freshman …. [at  Arizona State University (ASU)]. "I cough in class and everybody looks at me," she said. "I'm paranoid of coughing." … [She] mentioned a social and cultural divide that already exists between the large population of international students from China at ASU and the rest of the student body, stating that the virus "just made it more obvious."


Rumors can travel more quickly and more widely than they could in an era before social media,” said Thomas Rid …. a professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University …. “That of course lends itself to conspiracies spreading more quickly.”


In my Chinese moms chat group, we discussed how to brace ourselves and the kids for the inevitable wave of racism coming our way as this [the coronavirus] unfolds.  Many of us have never even been to China but know we will not go unscathed.” 


Perhaps revealing some naiveté, I’m surprised at the levels of vitriol towards Chinese people I’m seeing in the comments sections of stories about the Wuhan coronavirus.  And I mean towards the people, not the government.  Disheartening.”


Some of the xenophobia is likely undergirded by broader political and economic tensions and anxieties related to China, which are interacting with more recent fears of contagion,” said Kristi Govella, an assistant professor of Asian studies at the University of Hawaii, Manoa.


In France, one Vietnamese woman told the newspaper Le Monde that she had been insulted by a car driver who shouted “Keep your virus, dirty Chinese!” and “You are not welcome in France” as he sped away through a puddle, splashing her.


In Australia, Andy Miao, 24, an ethnic Chinese Australian who returned this month from a trip to China, said that passengers on public transport gave him odd looks if he was not wearing a face mask.  “It makes people like me who are very, very Australian feel like outsiders,” Mr. Miao said. “It’s definitely invoking a lot of past racial stereotypes.”


While the virus can be traced to a province in China, we have to be cautious that this not be seen as a Chinese virus,” [a Toronto] … school board  … said in a statement issued on Monday. “At times such as this, we must come together as Canadians and avoid any hint of xenophobia, which in this case can victimize our east Asian Chinese community.”


In the Ginza shopping district of Tokyo, which is often thronged with Chinese tourists, Michiko Kubota, who runs a clothing boutique, said she hoped the Japanese government might do more to help China, such as by sending masks or other medical supplies.  “Japan and China may be critical of each other sometimes, but the kindness is mutual,” Ms. Kubota said. “I hope we could do more to help eradicate fear in China as well.”


When Toronto resident Terri Chu tweeted that she and other Chinese mothers feared the “inevitable wave of racism” that would accompany the spread of coronavirus around the world, she didn’t realize how visceral the reactions would be. “My Twitter has just exploded with vitriol since this morning,” she said on Tuesday. “But it’s just par for the course, growing up as a minority when you’re not part of a dominant class.”


We are aware of an escalated level of concern and anxiety among families of Chinese heritage,” wrote York board chair Juanita Nathan and education director Louise Sirisko. “Individuals who make assumptions, even with positive intentions of safety, about the risk of others, request or demand quarantine can be seen as demonstrating bias and racism.”


As news of the deadly new coronavirus sweeps headlines, [fourteen-year-olds Kathleen Chen and Helen Deng] … say they’ve endured even more cruel jokes and suspicious stares than usual.  “Since the virus hit, that’s when more jokes started coming up,” said Deng, …. “They say we eat dogs. They make fun of our eyes a lot, how they’re smaller.”


In France, a local newspaper sparked outrage for using headlines that translate to “Yellow peril?” and “Yellow alert.”


There’s no escaping the racist stereotypes online, either. On TikTok, … racist and misleading videos about coronavirus abound. On Twitter, users are sharing racist memes, blaming the outbreak on Chinese eating habits.


I think people are acting out their frustrations and their racism and their stereotypes and prejudices, [and] that the floodgates are lifted when situations like this arise,” said Paul Watanabe, a political science professor and director of the Institute for Asian American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston.


The fact of the matter is we are facing a health crisis right now in the United States, and it’s a domestic one and it’s the flu. … The flu will clearly lead to the illness and death of more people in the United States …. And yet there’s no sort of assumption that Americans in general — mainstream Americans — don’t clean their hands or eat strange food or don’t take care of their food properly.


Boston Public Schools has consistently educated students and staff about the vital importance of cultural proficiency, and how to prevent, report, and address bias-based conduct.  [They] … remind us of the work that remains in our schools and our communities to strengthen our efforts to eliminate all forms of bias, and ensure every student is affirmed and welcomed.

I was really scared because I didn’t want to get sick,” one student said. “I was terrified of people touching me and sneezing around me ‘cause I didn’t want to get the virus.”


My friends, they said some people call this ‘Chinese virus.' But it’s discrimination. It’s not true,” [Yasmine Lei, 23] … said. In the meantime, she’ll ignore any wary stares or comments from strangers. “I know people are afraid because they don’t want to be sick," she said. "So I don’t judge others about how they see me or how they act.”


A Malaysian-Chinese social worker … [told CNN] "A couple of people at an East London school I work in have asked me why Chinese people eat weird food when they know it causes viruses."


In Canada, there have been reports of Chinese children being bullied or singled out at school. In New Zealand -- where there are no confirmed coronavirus cases -- a Singaporean woman says she was confronted and faced racist harassment in a mall.


Singaporean Kiwi Dollice Chua, who has lived [in New Zealand] … for 21 years … visited the mall wearing a mask to purchase a wedding card.  … while on the way to the toilets a middle-aged woman gave her "the dagger eyes." "You Asians are the ones who brought this virus," the woman said.  Chua responded that she was originally from Singapore. But her abuser continued "mumbling and glaring at me" as she walked away … This gave me a very lousy feeling. It's racist and beyond rude."

Jarred Evans, evacuee passenger from Wuhan, now in the U.S., talks about what Wuhan was like. “There’s no transportation, no trains, no subway, no planes. The military is blocking off each and every aspect of the road.  You think to yourself, like, is this real? Is this a movie?  Is this a nightmare? …. You cannot go outside without a mask, and/or goggles. .… It’s very scary.”z

We got here before the outbreak and it went south really quick.  …. We went from just being encouraged not to go outside, and not to go to private places, to: do not go outside.” Jenna Davidson, a U.S. college student in China, explains. “It’s a ghost town.  There’s 24 million people in Shanghai and there’s no one on the street.  It’s kind of spooky.”

We don’t know what’s actually going on.  We’re not really sure if they’re reporting the truth or like if they’re underreporting the actual numbers,” says Wuhan resident, Helen Chen.

Everyone is trying to leave China right now … and airlines know that so the prices are ridiculously high.  The flights are booked, fully, if not overbooked.  We’ve been actively trying to leave for the past few days.  About the point where we started realizing that we were … running low on food, we started looking at trying to get out of here,” Jenna Davidson, a U.S. college student in China, explains.

In light of current events, we east Asians in the UK are on high alert, paying close attention to how people interact with us. It is not their concern about health that is problematic, but the stereotyping of all east Asians as a coronavirus risk. At times such as this, even a simple bus trip can feel like a hostile environment.”

The atmosphere on my morning commute is tense. As panic over the coronavirus deepens and dominates the headlines, as an east Asian, I can’t help but feel more and more uncomfortable. On the bus to work last week, as I sat down, the man next to me immediately scrambled to gather his stuff and stood up to avoid sitting next to me.”

As it spreads, the virus has revealed more and more stereotyped judgments about Chinese people. I have also heard accounts from east Asians, even if they are not Chinese, who have recently been profiled while travelling at airports or on trains due to the ignorant perception that all east Asians are Chinese.”

In [a] … loud conversation, I overheard a woman talking about how terrified she was that her friend, who had spent some time working with Chinese students, might have infected her with the virus.”

Perhaps it did not occur to some of these people … that I was also concerned about the virus – or that I, as a British citizen, was no more likely than them to be carrying the virus. They grouped all east Asian people together, without factoring in that perhaps we were British or, if not, we were from unaffected areas of China, or even came from other countries in the Chinese diaspora. We were all the same to them.”

East Asians have been accused of instigating the virus by having “revolting” eating habits. Most Asians know these stereotypes all too well.  These insulting depictions don’t reflect the reality of being Chinese at all, and encourage the misguided perception of more than one billion people being a monolithic and singular group in which everyone speaks, acts and looks the same. In fact, there is a huge diversity.

This week, my ethnicity has made me feel like I was part of a threatening and diseased mass. To see me as someone who carries the virus just because of my race is, well, just racist.”

As the lunar new year celebrations take place across the world, let’s take a moment to think about the way in which east Asians are perceived and how important it is to see us in all our diversity, as individual human beings, and to challenge stereotypes. The coronavirus is a human tragedy, so let’s not allow fear to breed hatred, intolerance and racism.”

On Friday, Wuhan’s Communist Party chief … acknowledged his culpability for failing to taking “strict, preventive measures earlier.”  “I’m in a state of guilt, shame and self-reproach,” Ma Guoqiang told the country in a state media interview.

We didn’t wear masks at work. That would have frightened off customers,” Yu Haiyan, a waitress from rural Hubei, said of the days before the shutdown. “When they closed off Wuhan, only then did I think, ‘Oh, this is really serious, this is not some average virus.’”

Dr. Li is 34 and has a child. He and his wife are expecting a second in the summer. He is now recovering from the virus in the hospital where he worked. In an interview via text messages, he said he felt aggrieved …. “If the officials had disclosed information about the epidemic earlier,” he said, “I think it would have been a lot better. There should be more openness and transparency.”