The Other Pandemic

By Alan M. Kraut*

Donald Trump speaking to supporters

Donald Trump speaking to supporters at an immigration policy speech at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona. / Flickr / Creative Commons License

The coronavirus has sparked a virulent wave of racism and intolerance in the United States – as seen in past pandemics – but strong leadership can blunt or even stop it. The current wave echoes a contemporary ethnocentric nationalism that has infected many societies and political leaders around the world.

  • U.S. President Donald Trump denounced the anti-Asian prejudices – including epithets and, at times, spit and punishing blows against Chinese-Americans – that were stirred by his own use of the terms “foreign virus” and “Chinese virus,” but the damage was done. A community was put on notice, “You are the ‘other’ and you endanger us all by your presence.”

Throughout human history, groups defined by race or religion have been persecuted because of their association with disease. The Black Death of the Middle Ages was blamed on Jews, triggering ferocious physical persecution that resulted in tens of thousands of deaths, often by torture. Sociologist Erving Goffman observed that the most essential version of stigma was the abomination of the body – because the disease-causing contagion cannot be detected with the naked eye or easily avoided.

  • Throughout American history, epidemics have often been blamed on a specific immigrant or ethnic group and triggered anti-migrant policies. A cholera epidemic in 1832 was blamed on Irish Catholic newcomers who were poor and lived in congested conditions. The anti-Catholic passions of Protestant evangelicals were a factor.
  • Before the Quarantine Act of 1878 quarantine powers shifted from the states to the federal government. Each state had its own laws and immigration depots, such as Castle Garden in New York, which opened in 1855. Later, at federal depots, physicians used increasingly sophisticated medical instrumentation and diagnostic techniques to admit the healthy and those sufficiently robust to support themselves, but their expertise did not curb xenophobic hysteria or the association of immigrant groups and their behaviors with specific diseases. Chinese laborers were blamed for bubonic plague in the San Francisco area in the 1880s, and Italians were blamed for a polio epidemic that swept through the east coast of the United States in 1916. Anti-Semitic xenophobes dubbed tuberculosis the “Tailor’s Disease” or the “Jewish Disease” despite the lower rates of the disease in Jewish communities than in many non-Jewish communities in the United States.

Xenophobia and racism have not always surged in the United States during pandemics – thanks to greater public awareness of immigrants’ contributions and to strong political leadership.

  • There were fewer incidents of xenophobia during the 1918 influenza pandemic because immigration declined dramatically (from 1,218,480 a year in 1914 to 110,618 in 1918), and critics found it awkward to blame newcomers because over half a million foreign-born soldiers of 46 different nationalities were serving in the U.S. military.
  • Many Presidents of both parties since then have not hesitated to encourage Americans to call upon the better angels of their nature with respect to the foreign-born. Sitting in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, Democratic President Lyndon Johnson signed an immigration act in 1965 that abandoned the most restrictive immigration policy in American history and replaced it with a more welcoming policy. Years later, former Republican President George W. Bush echoed those sentiments, noting that “America’s immigrant history made us who we are.”
  • Xenophobia during an epidemic may be a “social ritual” that reaffirms a hypernationalism in the native-born, but when the drama concludes and the curtain descends, the prejudice and acts of discrimination can either transfer to a different stage or leaders can lead us away from them.

Little such leadership has come from the current occupants of the White House. Presidential advisor Stephen Miller and his allies claim that stopping new arrivals crossing the country’s southern border is necessary to preserve public health from illnesses borne by migrants. In 2018, the surge of migrants toward the border led to inquiries that Miller hoped would reveal – but did not – the spread of highly contagious diseases that endangered residents of states where they settled. More recently, Miller has encouraged the President to use his public health powers to seal the borders. One such federal law, the Public Health Service Act of 1944, allows the Surgeon General and the President to exclude from the U.S. individuals who might pose a danger because they could bring in “communicable diseases.” Ironically, while it has been Miller’s intention to target Latinos, many of them are doing the “essential work” that has kept the nation going during the crisis – in meat processing plants, grocery stores, and hospitals, where they are involved directly in the care of Covid-19 patients. Many thousands of those providing patient care are Latino “Dreamers” protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that the White House wants to end.

May 12, 2020

* Alan M. Kraut teaches history at American University.

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