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Many people have experienced the Covid-19 pandemic as an event of pure novelty: a sudden and unexpected break from the past. In some ways this is true, but as a historian of science who’s been teaching a course about pandemics for the past year, I’ve had a different perspective: one that has impressed upon me and my students the surprising parallels between the current moment and previous outbreaks of disease.
The module is called Fear of a Pandemic, and it’s about the way the anxieties that surface during pandemics don’t spring out of nowhere, but are coloured by social, historical and cultural factors – notably prejudice. Connected via platforms such as Zoom and WebEx, my students and I have discussed lesser known epidemics and the ways that rumours about ethnic minorities nearly cost them their lives.
The yellow fever epidemic of 1793, which killed 10% of the population in Philadelphia, caused havoc in the city. White Philadelphia residents went so far as to blame the spread of the disease on African migrants coming from Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti) or on Black people poisoning the wells. In response, Black Philadelphians such as Richard Allen, Absalom Jones and Sarah Bass Allen not only dispelled these beliefs but acted as frontline workers, providing healthcare for the Black community.
The most well-known pandemic in living memory, before Covid, is probably that of HIV/Aids. When we read History is a Weapon (the Queer Nation manifesto), a rallying cry by Act Up, some found the text provocative: the line “straight people are your enemy” sits uneasily with ideas of making alliances between marginalised groups, while others were deeply affected by the way death was a perennial presence in the lives of queer men at the time. The sluggardly public health response by the US government in the 1980s was indicative of the homophobia in American society, a fear of queer life that existed then and today.
Yet, few of them knew about the ways that African diasporic communities were affected. As a person with Haitian parents, I am very much aware of how, when HIV/Aids emerged as a modern-day epidemic in major cities in the US, Haitian immigrants were erroneously deemed responsible. On 4 March 1983, the United States Center for Disease Control listed four supposed groups as a “high risk” for contracting or transmitting HIV/Aids: homosexuals, heroin users, haemophiliacs and Haitians. Being part of this “4 H club” – the only group to be included on the basis of nationality – meant that Haitians and their descendants were denied housing, employment and admission to school, leading to the formation of segregated communities like the one I grew up in, Little Haiti in Miami – which was deemed a no-go zone for non-Haitians. During this lesson, we unpacked how these fears destroyed lives.
Teaching this during “normal” times would have certainly been interesting, but the privilege of probing these issues during a global pandemic is that my students have been able to quickly draw parallels with the present day, to see how these forces mutate and persist. One student recounted how during the initial phases of the pandemic when Black Americans were disproportionately getting Covid-19, the initial response was to criticise them for having comorbidities such as obesity, as opposed to recognising the reality that Black people were more likely to be essential workers, unable to exercise social distancing. Another student, of south Asian descent, described how in India a popular misbelief was that Muslim communities were responsible for spreading Covid-19, creating a situation in which some hospitals refused to treat Muslim patients.
I hope that my students have learned the central lesson: epidemics aren’t just about the bacteria and viruses that coexist with us, but they reflect the social divisions that push some people to the margins of society. Whether it is the opioid epidemic in rural America or the high incidence of maternal mortality for Black people, we have to reckon with how histories and legacies of inequality create the phenomenon of premature death. What we are finding again and again in the course is that the containment of epidemics pathologises non-white people, who are often perceived as the source of contagion, even as, through internment by the majority, they are made more susceptible to infection.
Covid-19 has laid bare how history can be a dark mirror of the present. It has been devastating, to say the least, to witness the inequalities in the healthcare system and the emergence of science “sceptics”. Putting aside the more obvious xenophobia of the former US president referring to Covid-19 as the “China virus”, the outright downplaying of the consequences of coronavirus is itself a racially coded act, given the disproportionate mortality rate for non-white people in countries like the US and UK.
When I showed my students the countries from which entry to the UK was banned, they noticed that all of the countries, with the exception of Portugal, were in the global south. One student even went so far as to ask, “Given the current rates of infection, why isn’t the US on the list?” Studying the historical relationship between fear and public health forces us to be vigilant: the line between good epidemiological practice and a regressive political fear of the “other” is easily blurred.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: From HIV to Covid, pandemics show us fear of disease is coloured by prejudice | Epidemics