Coronavirus resurfaces the US’s history of using disease as an excuse to be racist

Notoriously crowded Chinatown neighborhoods across the US have been mostly desolate since the coronavirus outbreak.
Notoriously crowded Chinatown neighborhoods across the US have been mostly desolate since the coronavirus outbreak.
Image: AP Photo/Eric Risberg
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When news first broke of the novel coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China, it forced another viral social pandemic to the surface in other parts of the world: anti-Asian racism and xenophobia.

The still-accumulating hundreds of thousands of confirmed cases and coronavirus-related deaths continue to rise. The US, which first criticized China for being inept at containing the outbreak, is now floundering, with few resources on hand and fears that the worst is still to come.

In the UK and US, incidents of physical and verbal attacks on Asians and Asian Americans spiked; Chinatown neighborhoods across the country saw a near 50% drop in foot traffic; misleading media reports about the origin of the virus used exoticizing narratives around Chinese meat markets.

This of course isn’t a new phenomenon. Similar reactions occurred during the SARS outbreak in 2003, with individuals, groups, and media outlets spreading false information that, in the words of medical anthropologist Laura Eichelberger “resurfaced to blame Chinese culture and people for disease.”

This pattern of conflating race with a specific disease is a constant thread in American history. To name a few, Irish immigrants were associated with cholera epidemics in the 1830s, and some venereal diseases like syphilis were mislabeled as a “black disease,” leading to horrific and inhumane treatment of African American men during the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. In Europe, Jews were widely blamed for the bubonic plague.

While racism has been a trait of American culture since independence, the renewed exposure of blatant racism, instances of racial violence, and mass anti-immigration sentiment has reached new levels in the past several years. As it turns out, the US’s history of outsider-hysteria has also played out in its treatment of another type of immigrant: plants.

“Plant immigrants”

In 1910, a shipment of 2,000 Japanese flowering cherry trees were publicly burned on the grounds of the Washington Monument for fear of potential new insects and pests they might contain. Historian of science Philip J. Pauly described how, with both new human and botanic immigrants coming into the US at the time, “attitudes toward foreign pest merged with ethnic prejudices: The gypsy moth and oriental chestnut blight both took and contributed to the characteristics ascribed to their presumed human compatriots.” Around the same time that the US started restricting and regulating movement of immigrants into the country, it also began restraining the types of plants that could be brought in, often with a similar racialized lens. While restrictive immigration laws were being introduced and passed like the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 and the Immigration Act of 1917, which created an “Asiatic Barred Zone,” officials at the United States Department of Agriculture were creating the first national regulations on quarantines and restrictions on plants from certain countries.

Pauly described how in 1918 the USDA pushed forward quarantine regulations that severely restricted the kinds of “plant immigrants” that could be brought in, creating a plant detention station outside of Washington where “plant immigrants will be received and carefully grown, watched and propagated, to be sure that all alien enemies are excluded.”

The US’s racial science of plants and people

It seems that the racial science that shaped restrictive immigration legislation like the 1924 Immigration Act, which created a quota system and deeply cut immigration from countries seen as inferior and those that would threaten an “ideal of US homogeneity,” bled into ideas similar to nativist sentiments about so-called plant immigrants. As Pauly wrote:

“Attitudes about foreign and native organisms were intimately linked, through both everyday experience and analogies of policy, to views on ‘alien’ and ‘native’ humans. Commonplace symbolic connections between geographically identified organisms and humans were omnipresent and powerful.”

Bringing us back to the present mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic, one can see that although we have moved past much of the debunked racial science of the past, these narratives that confuse and conflate race and national origin with a “natural” propensity for disease or infection are pernicious, and not easily dispelled.

Scientifically, we know that viruses are race-blind, and its origin and spread has nothing to do with skin color, features, or culture. Humans, however, are not race-blind. The rise in violence against Asians around the world proved that.

The beleaguered US public health system is now doing what it can to stop further spread of Covid-19. Imagine how different things could have been in the US if the government had taken early measures to prevent the disease spreading instead of expending energy on attacking people for their perceived connection to a disease that, as it turns out, is anything but foreign—and far from ‘totally under control’”?

And while the threats from these kinds of infectious diseases and invasive species are very real, in the early 20th century, chestnut blight killed an estimated 4 billion trees and practically wiped the once common tree from forests of the Northeast. But when we essentialize socially constructed notions of race with this fear, we also help spread misunderstanding, harm, and confusion. And in the case of the coronavirus, actual disease along with it.