What We Don’t Know Frightens Us: The Coronavirus & Scapegoating

This lesson provides factual information for students about the coronavirus aimed at preventing students from targeting classmates who are thought to be from China. 

Note to teacher:   

This lesson provides factual information for students about the coronavirus, 2019-nCoV, that started in Wuhan, China in early December 2019.  Providing accurate information about the disease may help prevent misinformed students from targeting classmates who are from China (or thought to be from China).  

Information about the coronavirus is changing quickly. Please see updated information from authoritative sources, including:

If students have been targeted at your school because of coronavirus fears, please also see these guidelines and resources for addressing this challenge.

Review the activity thoroughly to ensure that it is appropriate for your class. It may be helpful to read these guidelines for discussing difficult or upsetting issues.


See other lessons in this series:



In a go round, ask students to share one thing they’ve heard about the coronavirus that started in Wuhan, China, in early December 2019.

Chart what students share, by writing “coronavirus” in the center of the chart or board, then writing student associations around it in one color.  Ask students to try to limit their associations to a few words where possible and summarize what they say as you chart it.  

In a second go round, ask students to share how they’re feeling about the recent cases of coronavirus in the U.S. In a different color, chart the feeling words around the outside of what is already on the chart.  

In a third and final go round, ask students to share how they think people in Wuhan, the epicenter of the disease that is currently under lockdown, are feeling.  Chart these feelings words, in a third color, on the outside of the chart.  

Ask students to take a look at the chart.  

  • What do they notice?  
  • Based on the chart, how are people feeling?  Why do they think that is?

Using the words on the chart, invite a volunteer to share what they believe the coronavirus is and what has happened since it started in early December 2019.  Ask other volunteers to add what they know.  

Next, invite students to share any questions they may have about the disease and its spread in Wuhan, China and beyond.  Chart these too and let students know that you’ll be returning to these questions by the end of today’s lesson.  

Next, turn to answering the following questions with your students, if they haven’t yet been answered, using the information below from the Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization.


Coronavirus Questions & Answers

What is the novel Coronavirus, 2019-nCoV?

Elicit and explain that according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in early February:

CDC is closely monitoring an outbreak of respiratory illness caused by a novel (new) coronavirus (named “2019-nCoV”) that was first detected in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China and which continues to expand. ….

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that are common in many different species of animals, including camels, cattle, cats, and bats. Rarely, animal coronaviruses can infect people and then spread between people such as with MERSSARS, and now with 2019-nCoV.  ….

Imported cases of 2019-nCoV infection in people have been detected in the U.S. While person-to-person spread among close contacts has been detected with this virus, at this time this virus is NOT currently spreading in the community in the United States.

How does 2019-nCoV spread?

Elicit and explain that according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in early February:

 Much is [as yet] unknown about how 2019-nCoV, a new coronavirus, spreads. Current knowledge is largely based on what is known about similar coronaviruses. Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses .... Rarely, animal coronaviruses can infect people and then spread between people ….

… Person-to-person spread is thought to occur mainly via respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes, similar to how influenza [the flu] and other respiratory pathogens spread. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby (about 6 feet or less) or possibly be inhaled into the lungs. ….

Typically, with most respiratory viruses, people are thought to be most contagious when they are most symptomatic (the sickest). With 2019-nCoV, however, there have been reports of spread from an infected patient with no symptoms to a close contact.

There is much more to learn about the transmissibility, severity, and other features associated with 2019-nCoV and investigations are ongoing. This information will further inform the risk assessment.

What can be done to help prevent the spread of 2019nCov?

The standard recommendations from the World Health Organization (WHO) for the general public to reduce exposure to and transmission of a range of illnesses are outlined below.  They include hand and respiratory hygiene, and safe food practices:

  • Frequently clean hands by using alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.
  • When coughing and sneezing cover mouth and nose with flexed elbow or tissue – throw tissue away immediately and wash hands.
  • Avoid close contact with anyone who has fever and cough.
  • If you have fever, cough and difficulty breathing seek medical care early and share previous travel history with your health care provider.
  • When visiting live markets in areas currently experiencing cases of novel coronavirus, avoid direct unprotected contact with live animals and surfaces in contact with animals.
  • The consumption of raw or undercooked animal products should be avoided. Raw meat, milk, or animal organs should be handled with care, to avoid cross-contamination with uncooked foods, as per good food safety practices.


Group Reading & Discussion

Invite volunteers to take turns reading Handout 1 out loud. (Handouts 1, 2, and 3 are below, or see this pdf handout.) 

Ask each volunteer to read up to one paragraph.  

Next, discuss some or all of the questions at the bottom of the handout as a class, or split your class into smaller groups for discussion, before bringing them back to the whole class to share out.

Do the same with Handout 2 and Handout 3.



Go back to the questions you created earlier today.  See if any of them have been answered in today’s lesson.  Consider assigning students to research any unanswered questions for homework.  

Then, go back to the web you created earlier today.  Ask students if, based on today’s lesson, they feel they’d like to add anything else to the web.  


HANDOUT ONE  (pdf version)

According to Business Insider:

The outbreak of a new coronavirus has sparked fear and anxiety around the world.  The pneumonialike virus, which originated in Wuhan, China, has infected more than 9,700 people and killed 213 [as of January 31]….  It should also be noted that many patients with coronavirus have … made full recoveries.… According to Chinese officials, most of those who've died were elderly or had other ailments that compromised their immune systems.

Public health experts say that for the most part, panic over the Wuhan coronavirus outside of China is unproductive and unwarranted. The public should take precautions to avoid getting sick, but the most effective preventative measures are everyday actions like increased handwashing and not touching your face.

Amira Roess, a professor of global health and epidemiology at George Mason University, told Business Insider that fear would not stop the spread of the virus and could cause negative social impacts. "There's the spread of infectious disease, then there's the spread of panic," Roess said. "They have very different mechanisms." In the early stages of an infectious-disease outbreak, Roess added, much of the panic is "fear of the unknown."  ….Psychological research shows novel threats raise anxiety levels more than familiar threats and that people tend to underreact to familiar threats.”

According to USA Today:

[Take for example] “a virus out there that is frequently mutating, can get us very sick with fever, fatigue, and open the door for other life-threatening infections, including pneumonia. It passes easily from one to the other by coughing and sneezing and touching. It has already infected close to 20 million people here in the USA and killed more than 8,000 since October.…. The name of this virus is influenza [a.k.a. the flu], and we know it well, it has been around for centuries, even if it is constantly changing and providing new challenges. Still, the fact that we are used to hearing about it causes us to take it for granted.

There is another respiratory virus, … [with] an entirely new and powerful strain. It is creating havoc on the other side of the world, leading to entire regions being cordoned off, which has caused more hysteria which spreads more virus as people try to escape the restrictions. This coronavirus has killed over a hundred people, probably much more, but it feels like a more imminent personal threat than it really is, because it is new, unknown, and we are hearing and thinking about it all the time ….

We need more answers to assuage our fears…. Worried people take fewer precautions, which can lead to more spread…. We fear the unknown and jump quickly to envisioning worst case scenarios. The emotional centers of our brain are too strong. When someone sneezes or coughs on us, we think coronavirus when we should still be thinking flu.


Discussion Questions

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about the excerpt?
  • What is the main point the author is trying to make?
  • Give an illustration of their point with an example from the article.
  • Did you learn anything new about the coronavirus from in the excerpt?
  • Did you learn anything new about the flu from in the excerpt?



HANDOUT TWO (pdf version)

According to TIME:

Even as public health experts race to contain the novel coronavirus outbreak, a potentially more fearsome and shadowy pandemic—aimed at uninfected people unjustly fingered as potential carriers—grows.

Calls for bans on the movement of all peoples of Asian descent—which would subject millions of people to unnecessary and potentially life-threatening entrapment—are trending on social media, while in real life, the normal rules of social cohesion have started to break down. Outside a Chinatown restaurant in Sydney, Australia on January 29, for example, a 60-year-old man died from cardiac arrest, while bystanders reportedly refused to provide CPR for fear of catching coronavirus. 

Societies facing novel [diseases] … have often engaged in scapegoating of marginalized populations, especially when the infective source can be linked to a distant place and the disease associated with a racially distinct “foreign” peoples….

Erroneously blamed for HIV in the early 1980s, Haitians were beaten and harassed. Falsely scapegoated as carriers of SARS in 2003, Canadians of Chinese descent were kicked out of their homes and their businesses avoided….

Public fears of contamination by invasive foreigners reached a fevered pitch even before the first case of pneumonia at the Wuhan seafood market hit the news.

Right-wing populist leaders have for years singled out foreigners as vectors of crime, terror and disease, as if they alone posed such threats.…. [Some] news outlets … are now using the same inflammatory language to depict the coronavirus outbreak that they employ to describe people on the move, dubbing it a “viral invasion.” Such overtly alarmist rhetoric will almost certainly increase public pressure for discriminatory, unnecessary, and even unlawful policy measures aimed against socially disempowered populations. 

Discussion Questions



HANDOUT THREE (pdf version)

According to Business Insider:  Nationals of Asian descent in France, Canada, and the U.S. are reporting incidents of racism because of public fears of the Wuhan coronavirus.

The Guardian reported nearly 9,000 parents near Toronto have signed a petition to prevent students who had traveled to China in the past 17 days from attending school. "This has to stop. Stop eating wild animals and then infecting everyone around you," one petition signer wrote. "Stop the spread and quarantine yourselves or go back."

The New York Times reported that businesses throughout Hong Kong, South Korea, and Vietnam have posted signs telling customers from mainland China they are not welcome.

Asian students at Arizona State University, meanwhile — where a U.S. case of coronavirus was confirmed — said they were facing jokes, stares, and isolation on campus.

"I cough in class and everybody looks at me," a Vietnamese American freshman at ASU told Business Insider's Bryan Pietsch.

Misinformation about the coronavirus has spread as well — no, oregano oil will not cure it, nor will drinking bleach.

Discussion Questions:

  • Discuss your thoughts and feelings about the article. 
  • What is the main point the author is trying to make?
  • Give an illustration of their point with an example from the article.