Contagion Risk, Real and Imagined – Implications for the Future

Social crises offer a unique opportunity to made substantial and rapid change for the future – good or bad. Covid-19 is no different. Today’s pandemic reveals where and when societies fall short. When our healthcare and economic systems are taxed, the communities we most value, the resources we most cherish, and the fragility of certain livelihoods become apparent. The current situation also illuminates the different ways in which we understand and work to mitigate risk. How we perceive risk not only impacts the measures being implemented to keep us safe, it influences how we interact with others, the different paths we might embark upon, and the futures we create.

The idea of risk historically intersects with the creation of an ‘us’ and a ‘them’ or a ‘good’ and a ‘bad.’ Risk can be perceived or real, or a combination of the two. When a contagion risk is imagined, it can produce xenophobic behavior and social discrimination. In the United States, an perceived contagion risk stemming from the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, China has led to Asian American communities experiencing higher rates of discrimination and xenophobic behavior (Loffman 2020). The description of COVID-19 as the “China virus” (Orbey 2020) feeds into the perception that Asian American communities are at heighten risk of carrying and spreading the disease, isolating and altering the social experiences of this community in the United States and elsewhere. While the perception of increased risk is ascribed to some individuals and communities, sentiments about a lack of risk co-exist in what has become a complicated and at times opaque terrain. Protests to re-open the United States are growing (BBC News 2020). Alongside this, false claims about genetic differences, immunity, and susceptibility to disease based on race have reemerged (Ross 2020). In both instances, the idea of a diminished risk, or a falsely reported risk, is impacting behavior patterns and attitudes towards the virus and others. A future in which imagined risk, or alternatively a perceived lack of risk, run rampant compel us to confront misinformation and fear actively and proactively.

Within a swirl of misinformation and false perceptions, the realities of a contagious disease like COVID-10 can be diminished or exaggerated. Contracting and spreading COVID-19 is a real threat to the global world and requires steps to contain and limit its reach. One of the current approaches to containing the pandemic is to identify individuals and communities’ risk of transmission and implement preventative efforts accordingly. Active carriers of the virus can be identified through blood or saliva samples and are isolated or placed in quarantine accordingly. However, more extensive steps are being taken to mitigate the spread of disease in ways that introduce a new mechanism for social stratification. In China (Mozur, Zhong, and Krolik 2020), citizens are being required to use a mobile software system that determines their contagion risk. The personalized risk score, which appears as a QR code on one’s phone, assigns individuals a color. Green allows people to travel relatively freely. Yellow mandates a person should self-isolate at home. Red means an individual has the virus and should be in quarantine. With the scan of a phone, a person is quarantined or allowed into public spaces such as shopping malls or on public transportation. The app raises concerns about a lack of transparency into how a person’s score is generated and the data the mobile app stores (Davidson 2020). It also normalizes the process of stratifying individuals on the basis of their biological status.

Much like the 1997 science fiction film Gattaca’s identification of individuals based on their genetic make-up, the identification of individuals based on their contagion risk– whether that risk is real or imagined– will impact how we organize our society. In Gattaca, parents use in vitro fertilization to select ensure their offspring carry the optimal hereditary traits. One’s genetic stock then dictates their place, access, and agency within society. Viewing individuals as biological entities first, as Gattaca does when individuals’ rights and liberties are defined by their genetic makeup, points to several possible futures surrounding how we understand, identify, and act on contagion risk.

For instance, in a world without a COVID-19 vaccine, antibody status may become increasingly important. A future in which antibody carriers are given greater freedom of movement than those who have yet to contract the virus must be thought through carefully. Using and normalizing technological innovations like QR codes to track and dictate movement move us closer to a surveillance state built on the biological stratification of individuals. This future could infringe upon civil liberties and produce a social and economic dichotomy between those who are ‘risk-free’, and those who are ‘at-risk.’

What makes understanding contagion risk particularly difficult is the marriage between imagined risk and real risk. A recent study found that individuals living in regions with higher infectious disease rates “display increased implicit and explicit racial prejudice” (O’Shea et al. 2020). In other words, environments where a virus like COVID-19 makes its way through the community and seriously impacts the health and well-being of its members, can become breeding grounds for racial and ethnic discrimination and tension. 

In each of these futures, the threat of polarization looms large and instances of biological and social discrimination and stratification manifest themselves. As the pandemic continues to unfold, it will be important to remain mindful of the current and future impact of how we think about risk. Our lens should turn not only to the economic or political implications of our actions, but also the social ones: how we treat and view others. A failure to do so could create new futures rooted in old histories of xenophobia, polarization, and marginalization. 


BBC News. 2020. “US Faced with Protests amid Pressure to Reopen,” April 20, 2020, sec. US & Canada.

Davidson, Helen. 2020. “China’s Coronavirus Health Code Apps Raise Concerns over Privacy.” The Guardian, April 1, 2020, sec. World news.

Loffman, Matt. 2020. “Asian Americans Describe ‘gut Punch’ of Racist Attacks during Coronavirus Pandemic.” PBS NewsHour, April 7, 2020, sec. Nation.

Mozur, Paul, Raymond Zhong, and Aaron Krolik. 2020. “In Coronavirus Fight, China Gives Citizens a Color Code, With Red Flags.” The New York Times, March 1, 2020, sec. Business.

Orbey, Eren. 2020. “Trump’s ‘Chinese Virus’ and What’s at Stake in the Coronavirus’s Name.” The New Yorker, March 25, 2020.

O’Shea, Brian A., Derrick G. Watson, Gordon D. A. Brown, and Corey L. Fincher. 2020. “Infectious Disease Prevalence, Not Race Exposure, Predicts Both Implicit and Explicit Racial Prejudice Across the United States.” Social Psychological and Personality Science 11 (3): 345–55.

Ross, Janell. 2020. “Coronavirus Outbreak Revives Dangerous Race Myths and Pseudoscience.” NBC News, March 19, 2020.

Published by historicallyburdenedconcepts

Bi-racial butterfly interested in bioethics, sociogenomics, impacts on understandings of inequities

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