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The Ugly History of Blaming Ethnic Groups for Outbreaks

Stephen Mihm

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- As the coronavirus outbreak grows in scale and scope, a nasty side effect spreads: discrimination. Inside China, people from Wuhan have been treated like lepers. Outside, we’re seeing numerous reports of verbal and physical abuse aimed at ethnic Chinese, and an aversion to Chinese restaurants and other places associated with the country.

Sadly, this is nothing new: Past outbreaks have often gone hand in hand with ugly prejudice, with various ethnic or racial groups blamed for the disease. But this behavior, however commonplace in the past, has always backfired for the most obvious of reasons: Diseases don’t discriminate. Indeed, a pathogen like the coronavirus is the ultimate reminder of our shared humanity. 

Consider the gold standard of pandemics: the bubonic plague, better known as the Black Death.  It came roaring into Europe in 1348 and managed to kill off a quarter of the population within a few short years. As the death toll soared, many self-professed Christians looked for an explanation – and a way to put an end to the epidemic.

They fell back on anti-Semitism. Because some Jewish communities initially escaped the epidemic, Christians accused them of masterminding the outbreak. Lacking a germ theory of disease, they claimed that that Jews had poisoned the wells, or as one deranged medieval conspiracy theorist claimed, the Jews “wished to extinguish all of Christendom, through their poisons of frogs and spiders mixed into oil and cheese.”

These zealots proceeded with a bloodletting as horrifying as the plague itself.  Hundreds of Jewish communities, many concentrated in what is now Germany, became the target of extermination campaigns. In town squares, mobs gathered together Jewish communities and burned them alive en masse. One chronicler, unusual because he betrayed sympathy toward the victims, reported that “women and their small children [were] cruelly and inhumanly fed to the flames.”

And yet the plague continued to rage, killing off these same communities. Genocide, it became apparent, was not going to keep the plague at bay.

Mercifully, the response to subsequent outbreaks rarely rivaled the brutality of this episode. But the larger pattern of scapegoating outsiders continued, as did the quaint belief that eliminating those outsiders – or at least curtailing contact – would protect you from the disease.

Typical was the spread of syphilis in the fifteenth century. Unlike the plague, syphilis killed its victims very slowly (if painfully) and did not spark the same panic that accompanied the plague.  But as it spread throughout Europe, each population inevitably blamed other foreigners for the gruesome chancres, sores, and eventual insanity that defined the disease.

As one historian wryly observed, “the increased movement of people across national borders reinforced the need to protect social boundaries.  Every national group in Europe defined syphilis as a disease of other nations.” The Germans blamed the French, calling it the “French Disease.” Not to be outdone, the French blamed the Italians. Later, the Poles blamed the Russians, the Persians blamed the Turks, Muslims blamed Hindus, and the Japanese would blame the Portuguese.

This was ridiculous, of course, but no matter: the idea that one could avoid a disease by policing – and excluding – people different from oneself was (and remains) an immensely appealing, if deeply misguided, approach to managing disease. Indeed, as Germans studiously avoided French prostitutes and the French avoided Italian courtesans, syphilis continued to burn through Europe.

Something similar happened in the United States. Waves of immigration fundamentally transformed the country over the course of the nineteenth century. Inevitably, each ethnic group who arrived found themselves accused of carrying some dread disease. Then, as now, people held them in contempt – and avoided them if at all possible. 

The Irish experience was typical. In the early part of the century, the Irish emigrated to the U.S. in growing numbers. Unfortunately, their arrival coincided with the outbreak of cholera in cities. For Protestant elites who hated Catholics, it was only natural to assume that the odd, alien newcomers must have brought what became known as the “Irish disease.” 

This may explain why so many reputable doctors strongly advised patients to avoid consuming “ardent spirits.” Don’t drink whiskey like the Irish, they said; drink water. Ironically, this just happened to be the best possible way to catch cholera in the first place: It was spread through contaminated municipal wells. Such was the stupidity of equating disease with ethnicity.

Other groups soon found themselves tarred by their association with disease. Jewish immigrants, scapegoated as carriers of the plague and typhus in Europe, were  accused of carrying “consumption,” better known as tuberculosis, to the U.S.

This was the “Jewish disease” or the “tailor’s disease,” so-called because so many Jews followed that occupation. Prominent anti-Semites happily peddled this belief, arguing that Jews were sickly, weak, and diseased – unlike strapping, native-born “Anglo-Saxons.” This had no basis in fact. In reality, Jewish immigrants actually had longer life expectancies than their native counterparts, with lower levels of tuberculosis. But that didn’t stop these “race theorists” from using these claims to justify draconian restrictions on immigration in the 1920s.

Other outbreaks followed this same script. In 1916, a major outbreak of polio in New York City lead misguided doctors and medical vigilantes to blame a host of culprits before settling on Italian immigrants as the cause. New Yorkers desperately avoided Italians, believing that they carried the disease. But polio spread anyway because it had actually infiltrated the larger population by the time that the Italians got the blame.

In fact, the practical problem with identifying a particular group as the exclusive carriers of disease (or the culprits behind the spread of it) is that it blinds people to the reality viruses and bacteria don’t care if you’re from Wuhan or Washington. If you’ve got a pulse, you’ll make an excellent host.  

And at this point, with coronavirus cases scattered around the world, you’re just as likely to catch the coronavirus from someone who looks exactly like you.

To contact the author of this story: Stephen Mihm at smihm1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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

Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to Bloomberg Opinion.

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