What Is Victim Blaming During COVID-19?

Why certain populations are being blamed

Victim blaming occurs when a victim (usually of a crime) is held entirely or partially at fault for what happened to them. Most commonly, victim blaming is a term used when referring to sexual assaults. Individuals who learn about the assault may assume the victim was doing something inappropriate or making poor choices that led to it happening.

But victim blaming may also be an issue when it comes to COVID-19. Some populations are being blamed for contracting—or even spreading—the illness.

Why It Occurs

There are several psychological principles at play that lead to victim blaming. In many cases, it can stem from our desire to think we live in a just world.

If you can blame a victim for making poor choices, you might convince yourself that they are deserving of their fate. This is why people sometimes ask questions about how much someone had to drink before they were sexually assaulted. Or they may ask what someone was doing when they were attacked in a violent crime. Individuals who can draw conclusions that the victim must have done something “wrong” may then feel a sense of relief.

Such people might conclude that they won’t become victims because they don’t engage in certain behaviors. It also helps them maintain a view that the world is just and fair as they convince themselves that victims were somehow deserving of their fate. 

A 2016 study examined why some people place blame squarely on perpetrators while others tend to blame the victim. Researchers found that an individual’s moral values played a determining role in whether they blamed perpetrators or victims.

Those who value reducing harm and impartial treatment are likely to blame perpetrators. Those who place a higher importance on values like loyalty, purity, and obedience are more likely to blame victims.

Victim Blaming and COVID-19

There are several reasons why victim blaming may take place during COVID-19. For instance, individuals may want someone to get angry at. After all, it’s tough to be angry at the virus itself.

Blaming someone—or a certain group—may also help some individuals feel like someone is at fault for spreading the illness. They may want to believe the virus can be controlled as long as no one makes “poor decisions.”

So they blame those who are sick or those who are living in “hot spots” for being careless. This may reinforce the belief that they can stay safe as long as they don’t do anything wrong.

Sometimes victim blaming is direct. An individual may outright blame a person for getting sick. At other times, victim blaming may be a little subtler.

For example, a news reporter might speculate how or where an individual "acquired" an illness such as COVID-19, which could carry imply that they did so on purpose.

There may be conversations or news stories about why certain areas have higher prevalence of COVID-19 than others. And some may be quick to place blame on individuals for certain behaviors or activities that may be part of the cause.

Social and Economic Factors

Severe illness and death rates tend to be higher for racial and ethnic minority groups during public health emergencies, including the coronavirus pandemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), current data indicates that minorities may be more likely to grow ill or die from COVID-19.

Researchers believe this stems from a variety of economic factors and social conditions that are more common among some racial and ethnic minorities. But blaming victims for the barriers that make staying healthy more difficult doesn’t do anyone any good.

According to the CDC, some of the factors that disproportionately affect racial and ethnic minorities include:

  • Neighborhood environment: Densely populated areas can make social distancing nearly impossible. For example, someone who does not have a car may have to walk through crowds or ride public transportation in order to stock up on supplies.
  • Crowded living conditions: Multi-generational households, which are common among some racial and ethnic minorities, may make it difficult to protect older family members or to isolate those who have symptoms.
  • Essential work: Minority groups may also be more likely to work in essential industries and unable to work from home. They also may be less likely to have paid sick leave, which may cause them to continue working despite illness.
  • Less access to health care: People in racial and ethnic minority groups may lack health insurance or be unable to afford out-of-pocket costs. Consequently, they may have more underlying health issues that make them more susceptible to illness.

It's important to note that individuals in these circumstances aren't being reckless. Their living and working conditions simply make it more difficult for them to stop the spread of the pandemic.

Putting an End to Victim Blaming

Victim blaming hurts the individuals who are blamed, not to mention society as a whole. Education is the key to positive change.

It’s important for everyone to be made aware of the obstacles and barriers some individuals experience. Then, we can all work together on developing solutions, rather than pointing fingers at people who are unable to social distance due to economic or social factors.

The media can play a pivotal role by paying close attention to the stories they cover and the words they use. It may be helpful to share some of the barriers some groups are facing without blaming them for any struggles they experience.

You can play a role in putting an end to victim blaming by paying careful attention to the way you speak about victims. Change your language, if necessary. And be willing to educate those around you on the hurdles that some individuals face.

A Word From Verywell

If you’ve been blamed for becoming ill, or you’ve been accused of spreading COVID-19 based on your race, economic status, or zip code, you may experience shame or stress. These feelings can take a toll on your psychological well-being.

Being blamed when you’re the victim is serious. If you need someone to talk to, don’t hesitate to reach out for professional help. Many therapists are offering online counseling right now. Additionally, you can find many free resources if you need some emotional support.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Niemi L, Young L. When and why we see victims as responsible. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2016;42(9):1227-1242. doi:10.1177/0146167216653933

  3. Jakovljevic M, Jakovljevic I, Bjedov S, Mustac F. Psychiatry for better world: COVID-19 and blame games people play from public and global mental health perspective. Psychiatria Danubina. 2020;32(2):221-228. doi:10.24869/psyd.2020.221

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By Amy Morin, LCSW, Editor-in-Chief
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist, and international bestselling author. Her books, including "13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do," have been translated into more than 40 languages. Her TEDx talk,  "The Secret of Becoming Mentally Strong," is one of the most viewed talks of all time.