Since the coronavirus pandemic began, several organizations, including the United Nations and Human Rights Watch, have warned that it has unleashed a global wave of hate speech and xenophobic attacks. In many countries, from the United States and Europe to Brazil and Kenya, people of Asian descent have been targeted with discrimination, verbal abuse and xenophobic attacks. And around the world, religious minorities, migrant workers and foreigners are being targeted as well.

In Asia and Africa, fast-growing megacities have attracted waves of new urban migrants of different ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds from those of established city residents. We wanted to know whether new threats — like the pandemic and climate change — would undermine tolerance and leave cities more divided and dangerous.

To find out, we researched attitudes in one megacity, Lagos, Nigeria. What we found suggests that the answer is yes. As the pandemic has devastated the economy, xenophobic attitudes and social polarization have climbed. We found that members of politically influential ethnic groups — especially those hardest-hit economically by the pandemic — were more likely to express xenophobic attitudes. But while ethnic minorities suffered more seriously from the economic effects of the pandemic lockdown, they were less likely to express hostility to members of other groups.

Here’s how we did our research

Through a locally recruited team of enumerators, we conducted a phone survey in May with 868 market vendors of different ethnic backgrounds from a representative sample of 146 markets around Lagos, one of the world’s largest cities.

Lagos has an estimated population of more than 20 million, and it attracts migrants of different ethnic backgrounds from across Nigeria. Members of the Yoruba ethnic group are an estimated 60 percent of the city’s population, but are split on religious lines and along region of origin. The non-Yoruba population is divided between Igbo, Hausa and other ethnic groups from Nigeria’s southern Delta region.

The vast majority of Lagosian workers are employed in the informal economy, including mostly small businesses unregulated by the state. Markets are the largest sites of informal economic activity. Like other informal workers, market vendors rely on daily earnings for their livelihood.

The study sample, which we randomly selected from the population of Lagosian vendors during earlier in-person research, gives us a window into the pandemic-related struggles faced by the city’s poorer residents and by similarly vulnerable populations in megacities around the world.

Our survey asked questions about individuals’ livelihoods; covid-19’s effects on their businesses and households; what pandemic assistance they’ve received, if any; and possible xenophobic attitudes toward other ethnic groups. To measure social polarization, we asked respondents how willing they might be to share a meal with a person from a different group; how warmly they felt toward their own group and toward others; and whether they saw members of a different group as a serious threat.

Most Lagosians suffered losses, but those in the ethnic majority faced less hardship

Most survey participants suffered losses from the government-imposed March and April lockdowns on movement and economic activity. More than 70 percent reported lost income; 37 percent reported they’d had less access to food than before the lockdowns.

Yoruba vendors, who were roughly half of our respondents, were 7 percent less likely to report food shortages and 9 percent less likely to report that their shops had been closed than were their ethnic minority peers.

Yoruba politicians and the bureaucrats they hire dominate state and local politics, which may have protected ordinary Yorubas from pandemic regulations. Most elected officials are Yoruba, even those representing diverse communities, and the city has never had a non-Yoruba governor. State government agencies enforce lockdown regulations, with some assistance from federal police, and state and local government personnel distribute government relief.

Yoruba respondents were more likely to keep running their businesses during lockdown. At the same time, they were significantly more likely to have applied for and received government benefits during the crisis, particularly food assistance. This was not because they were poorer than ethnic minority vendors; we found no evidence that pandemic food assistance was targeted to the most vulnerable.

Affected majority group members expressed more polarized and xenophobic attitudes

Yorubas — especially those who can trace their families’ origins to Lagos — expressed more polarized attitudes than members of other groups. For instance, when asked if members of a different group are a “serious threat” to Lagos, 26 percent of Lagosian Yoruba and 14 percent of other Yoruba said yes. Only 7 percent of ethnic minority respondents said the same about other groups.

Yoruba vendors who had their shops closed express more polarized and xenophobic attitudes than Yoruba who were less affected by the crisis. We found similar results when we looked at other economic difficulties, such as food insecurity. Among ethnic minorities, we found no such increase in polarized views if they suffered covid-19-related economic hardships.

What does this mean for pandemic response?

Lagos politicians and community leaders have not been openly encouraging ethnic divisions. And yet majority-group Lagosians who’ve been hurt by the pandemic still grew more xenophobic.

Our findings suggest that ethnic polarization and xenophobia will keep increasing along with the pandemic. Xenophobic attitudes can exacerbate existing inequalities in access to covid-19 information and care, since news about benefits is often filtered through politically connected social networks. Social polarization can additionally increase distrust in the media and government, undermining covid-19 responses.

Our research shows that people belonging to more powerful and privileged identity groups become more hostile to ethnic “outsiders” when faced with hard economic times. Politicians may therefore need to grapple with significant backlash from political “in-groups’” if they want to care for the whole community. In Lagos, had politicians distributed aid and support equitably, xenophobic and polarizing backlash might have been even worse.

Jessica Gottlieb is associate professor at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.

Adrienne LeBas is associate professor of government at the School of Public Affairs at American University.

Funding for their research on the covid-19 pandemic in Lagos is provided by the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.