Why Disease and Xenophobia Go Hand in Hand

·5 min read

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Pandemics have always been fellow travelers of globalization. A third phenomenon stalks in their shadow: racism.

That's worrying. The global threat of Covid-19 seems to be leading not to a unified global response, but to an American president who until Tuesday was describing it as a “Chinese virus” while officials in Beijing stirred up conspiracy theories on social media about a U.S. military origin for the disease. Already, stories are proliferating of people subject to abuse and attacks for “coughing while Asian,” or being turned away from businesses because of actual or presumed Chinese ethnicity.

Sadly, there’s nothing new in this. As my colleague Pankaj Mishra has written, the current situation parallels events a century ago, when the first interconnected world economy unraveled into the chaos of World War I. It was disease, as much as war and revolution, that drove that collapse.

The age of sail had imposed a natural restraint on both epidemics and migration. It took as long as a month to cross the Atlantic, meaning any infections had already burned themselves out by the time a port was reached. When typhus spread to North America among Irish emigrants fleeing the potato famine of the 1840s under sail, the onboard outbreaks were so notorious that the boats were nicknamed “coffin ships.”

Steamships changed all that, opening up ocean transport by drastically lowering its cost and cutting the time needed for transatlantic crossings to less than a week. That helped spark the first era of mass migration as millions of Europeans left for the new world — but it also put the length of a transatlantic journey well within the period when diseases could spread unnoticed.

Cholera, which had previously been confined to an endemic area around Bengal, spread among the officers and traders of the British Empire to inflict devastating epidemics on every continent. Smallpox pandemics played a crucial role in the Americas since Columbus’s day, enabling colonialism due to their devastating impacts on indigenous populations. Yellow fever crept up repeatedly from the Caribbean and central America to ravage the southern U.S. In 1889, the first modern influenza pandemic spread rapidly from Russia to North America.

Since that era, immigration restrictions and public health measures have often gone hand-in-hand. It’s no coincidence that sites in New York Harbor synonymous with migration such as Ellis Island and Liberty Island started life as quarantine stations. “International mobility is central to the globalization of infectious and chronic diseases,” according to a 2007 bulletin from the World Health Organization. “The history of health and foreign policy reflects long-term links to migration issues.”

As people confined to their homes will be well aware, limits on human movement and interaction are crucial to holding back outbreaks of disease. Racism, however, exploits a flaw in human reasoning quite as effectively as infections exploit flaws in our immune defenses. The central fallacy is to assume that if international travel helps spread disease, a perceived “foreign” group is most likely to be carriers. Viruses, though — unlike people — don’t much discriminate by race.(2)

The Covid-19 outbreak in Italy is a case in point. Several commentators have claimed without evidence that the source across the north of the country was the large number of Chinese migrants working in Italy’s fashion sector. In fact, tracing the contacts of the infected and finding “patient zero” is a well-established practice in epidemics, and there’s no sign of any significant origins among garment workers. All the research to date suggests the key source was instead a 38-year-old Unilever Plc employee named Mattia from the town of Codogno.

Despite the lack of evidence that ethnic groups are responsible for disease, the canard has been frequently been used to justify racist measures. One notorious 19th-century cartoon from Australia’s Bulletin magazine presented China as a malignant octopus attacking the country, two of whose arms were labeled “smallpox” and “typhoid.”

It was a similar story in the U.S. Only about 1% of the mostly European immigrants coming to Ellis Island around the turn of the 20th century were rejected for medical reasons. By contrast, some 17% of the more Asian migrant population at San Francisco’s Angel Island was disbarred for sickness, owing in large part to more intrusive screening and vague disease categories applied to non-Europeans. Anti-Chinese measures like San Francisco’s Cubic Air Ordinance were justified on public health grounds as measures to combat “insanitary” overcrowding.

For much of the past century, the relative absence of pandemics has put the alliance between racism and disease into remission. Vaccines, antibiotics, sewerage systems and a better understanding of hygiene have proved our most powerful tools for fighting disease.

One of the more enduring threats of coronavirus may be the way it changes this calculus. With luck, the connections built up during this era of mass migration will keep xenophobia in check. Trump said Tuesday he would stop using the term “Chinese virus.” That’s a start.

(1) Some diseases do appear to be prevalent at different rates among different ethnic groups, such as hepatitis C, although the mechanism for this isn't well understood. Many people with African ancestry are less likely to die from the malaria amoeba thanks to a side-effect of sickle-cell anemia, a blood condition.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

David Fickling is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities, as well as industrial and consumer companies. He has been a reporter for Bloomberg News, Dow Jones, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and the Guardian.

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