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OISE-led COVID-19 research will document, intervene around coronavirus stigma, discrimination and misinformation

July 24, 2020

By Perry King



An OISE-led research team that is studying the stigma, fear, discrimination, and misinformation related to the spread of the coronavirus is one of nine U of T-based research groups that have received funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

The research team, led by Professor Roy Gillis, is taking steps to approach the issue by using several strategies to gain information from members of Chinese and East Asian communities in Canada – who are seen as targets of much of the stigma, fear, discrimination and even violence during this crisis.

The research aims to provide an increased understanding of how public health and government ministries can better respond to, as well as increased public awareness about, the harm of stigma, fear, discrimination, violence and misinformation related to COVID-19. Ultimately, this research aims to achieve reductions in stigma, fear, discrimination, violence and misinformation through community-driven and online interventions.

The team was granted $467,844, the full amount they applied for.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of understanding health and illness as a social issue. Professor Gillis and his colleagues are undertaking crucial research that will provide a strong evidence base to inform public health systems and help to effectively address the racism and discrimination that have arisen in the current context,” said Michele Peterson-Badali, OISE’s Associate Dean, Research, International and Innovation.

“On behalf of OISE, I congratulate the team for securing funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research for this important and timely research.”

Gillis, a professor in OISE’s department of applied psychology and human development, spoke with OISE News for a deep dive conversation about what this project intends to do, how the research is being conducted, and what the potential benefits would be.

This conversation has been edited for length. Learn more about CIHR funding.

Why were you and your team compelled to better understand the stigma, fear, discrimination, and misinformation related to the spread of the coronavirus?

Our team consists of researchers with extensive leadership, expertise and novel insights into a range of areas – including psychological impacts of hate crime victimization, resilience and well-being of vulnerable populations, and risk and wellness behaviours during emerging adulthood. An underlying (and thus unifying) focus of our research is in social justice and improving outcomes for marginalized populations.

Members of the Chinese and East Asian communities globally, and here in Canada, have been targets of increasing stigma, fear, discrimination and violence because they are perceived to be responsible for the coronavirus. As was the case with SARS in 2003, racist and xenophobic tropes and behaviours towards Chinese and East Asian communities are being reinforced and magnified during COVID-19.

During times of public health crises, such as HIV, SARS and Ebola, existing societal inequalities and imbalances are amplified and exploited. Racialized communities, many of whom form the bulk of marginalized and vulnerable groups, have always been scapegoated during times of economic and social upheavals, and public health crises are often exploited by political and non-political agendas.

How important is it to be doing this work, at this time? Are you hopeful it could make a broad difference?

The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented health crisis but is also wreaking a massive economic and social crisis globally. We have seen the pandemic being militarized through the discourse of war being employed to compare the virus and its effects to world wars and the aftermath. Health care workers are praised and honoured as heroes for being on the frontlines of the fight against the virus. World leaders talk about plans for recovery and rebuilding. There are national rallying cries to citizens for solidarity and strength to make sacrifices to save lives and country.

Simultaneously, there is the weaponization of hate, stigma, and discrimination against those who are perceived as being outside the collective, as being the outsiders in the nation.

We recognize the importance of working towards an enhanced understanding of the prevalence and impact of stigma, fear, discrimination, violence and misinformation occurring worldwide, but especially within the Canadian context, to enable us to model these impacts more accurately.

Research team members (top left to right): Ashley Lam, Jeffrey To, Gabriella Patro, Heather Abela, Carman Logie, Roy Gillis, Abby Goldstein, Lisa Chinchamie, Ying Xu, Priyank Chandra, Ishtiaque Ahmed, Roula Kteily-Hawa

How do you want to translate your findings and research into actionable items?

We consider the knowledge translation and exchange (KTE) activities associated with this research study to be a fundamental aspect of the design of the research and a key deliverable outcome of the research. This will be accomplished by the promotion of media events and interviews, podcasts, Facebook groups, and other social media platforms to the public and selected audience. Each message and posting will be specifically designed for the intended audience to have maximum uptake and impact.

KTE activities will be enhanced, and, possibly, implemented in China with the assistance of our colleague and Principal Investigator on this grant application, Professor Ying Xu from the Department of Sociology, Shenzhen University, China. These activities will be in addition to the regular publication outlets and research-friendly websites that most academics already use.

Why is it important to discuss these findings with public health officials? Who else could benefit from these findings?

Lessons learned previous public health crises including the HIV virus, have helped shape the responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. We have, fortunately, progressed significantly in our methods of analysis and theoretical formulations as a result. Responding to the stigma, toxic discourses and messages concerning the COVID-19 disease outbreak is of critical importance to public health authorities and government agencies, as stigma, fear and discrimination cause individuals to deny their susceptibility to infection with viruses, deny symptoms of viral infection and avoid being tested for viruses.

One of the outcomes of the study will be the design of community driven interventions. Besides our sociotechnical interventions, we will build on established theory for combating stigma through arranging public events. Based on this theory, we will organize events in three major cities in Canada (Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal). The events will promote public participation both by the people who are stigmatized and who are not. We will invite experts and members of the community to discuss the issues with the participants and coordinate different events that involve collaboration and discussions among the participants.

What kind of timeline is there for collecting data through surveys, focus groups and a representative survey? What makes these data collection approaches so effective?

Our first stage of investigation, currently underway, involves collecting and analyzing social media postings from major social media platforms that have hashtags or keywords related to COVID-19. We will develop computational models to automatically detect hateful and stigmatized or misleading postings from social media platforms and develop systems to automate the detection of such messages and plan appropriate social media interventions to correct them.

To further investigate, the project’s research staff will conduct 150 qualitative in-person interviews across Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. Participants will include key community leaders in each city, businesspeople affected by the COVID-19 disease fears, local Chinese Canadian and permanent residents from China living in these cities, and domestic and international students from China or with Chinese heritage.

Interviews will include a thorough discussion of cultural heritage and acculturation experiences, gender, gender identity and sexual orientation, educational level and support networks – as well as how they have been recently and historically impacted by experiences of racism, exclusion, isolation, violence, verbal abuse and stigmatization which predate and include experiences related to the epidemic.

The analyses here will be integrated with a gender-based and intersectional analysis to better understand and contextualize the findings of the qualitative interviews. We anticipate this stage to take place over the summer into the fall, and the projected timeline for this is eight months.

What would a social media response, in effect employing "social influencers," look like? How will this campaign be analyzed and assessed?

We will design, build, deploy, and evaluate two sets of interventions informed by the findings from Stages 1 and 2 of our study – based on the use of social media influencers and promoting positive attitude change and support in the affected communities, and a web-based motivational interviewing intervention to further change attitudes and behavior.

First, social media users identified in Stage 1 and 2 of the research will be encouraged to participate in the Stage 4 interventions. In addition, we will select a set of online social influencers and help them create posts that will attract a large number of online users to read the postings, and gauge their reactions and responses.

Secondly, we will develop a website with updated information regarding the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the COVID-19 pandemic to enhance public knowledge. For the most damaging and stigmatizing postings, we will develop social media strategies to reach out to users and make them aware of the problematic nature of the social media communications they have been receiving or sending.

These participants will then be directed to the interviewing-based web interventions described above. We will evaluate the success of the intervention by having participants complete a pre- and post-assessment of attitudes to assess whether exposure to the intervention changed beliefs. We aspire to collect data using a repeated measures design with data points directly following the intervention and at six months post-intervention to assess the long-term impact of the intervention.

For any inquiries related to this study, please email:

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