Viral Xenophobia

16 March 2020

As I write these words, the world is in the path of a mounting pandemic. People are frightened. They should be. The novel coronavirus is dangerous. It can and does kill. But its biologically menacing character is just one part of the threat that it poses. The virus also presents us with a social threat. 

Viruses and other microscopic sources of disease are unobservable to the naked eye. And even though we nowadays understand the causes and nature of infection, this theoretical knowledge doesn’t always affect our behavior as it should. There’s something uncanny about an invisible, lethal threat—something that can expose and exacerbate the fissures in a society, and can be readily exploited by racist and xenophobic ideologues.

The bubonic plague of the 14th century is a classic example. It entered Europe in 1347, and quickly swept across the continent, leaving a catastrophic death toll in its wake. As the plague advanced, terrified people looked for someone to blame for it. They turned to marginalized groups—the most vulnerable members of European society—especially the Jews. European Christians had been marinated in anti-Semitic beliefs for centuries. “The most vivid impression to be gained from medieval allusions to the Jew,” wrote historian Joshua Trachtenberg in his classic text The Devil and the Jews, “is of a hatred so vast and abysmal, so intense, that it leaves one gasping for comprehension.”  

In this racist environment, a grassroots conspiracy theory arose. The bubonic plague, it was claimed, was a terrorist plot aimed at destroying Christian civilization. Jews were conspiring with North African Muslims to exterminate Christians by poisoning their water supplies. Ginned up by this preposterous idea, Christian mobs attacked Jewish communities, killing thousands of men, women, and children, often by burning them to death. Christian chroniclers matter-of-factly remarked on the “horrible means by which the Jews wished to extinguish all of Christendom, through their poisons of frogs and spiders mixed into oil and cheese” and dispassionately concluded that “the Jews deserved to be swallowed up in the flames.” Those Jews who managed to escape death fled to Poland and surrounding areas, rendering great swathes of Western Europe what the Nazis would later call Judenrein—“cleansed  of Jews.”

You may think that this example is little more than testimony to an ignorant and brutal past, and that recent history does not echo it. But many similar things have happened since 1347. In 1899, bubonic plague made landfall in Hawaii. It had spread from China, and the first victims were Chinese immigrants to Hawaii. At the time, the Chinese were a despised racial minority whose lives did not matter. American health authorities cordoned off the Chinese community of Honolulu, imprisoning ten thousand people in a death-trap whose perimeter was patrolled by guards armed with fixed bayonets. One White health authority remarked, “Plague lives and breeds in filth and when it got to Chinatown, it found its natural habitat.” 

Plague emerged a year later in San Francisco. Californian health authorities considered it a “racial disease” and therefore not a threat to Whites. The US government had already banned Chinese immigration to the United States, and the image of Chinese people as vectors of moral and physical infection was already well established by the time the plague erupted in San Francisco. “If as a nation we have a right to keep out infectious diseases,” US Senator James Blaine, a republican from Maine, opined, “if we have the right to exclude the criminal classes from coming to us, we surely have the right to exclude that immigration which reeks with impurity and which cannot come to us without…sowing the seeds of moral and physical disease, destitution, and death.” Consequently, Chinese Americans were subjected to demeaning and sometimes violent treatment in a misguided effort to protect Whites from this terrible disease.

These are just a few examples of an all-too-common pattern. During the Armenian genocide, militant Turks thought of Armenians as carriers of typhus who must be destroyed. And Nazi propaganda revivified the centuries-old trope of Jews as carriers of plague, describing the holocaust as an act of hygiene rather than as mass murder. Hitler explicitly associated Jews with the bubonic plague, writing in Mein Kampf, “This was pestilence, spiritual pestilence, worse than the Black Death of olden times, and the people was being infected with it.” More recently, the AIDS epidemic was laid at the door of gay men and Haitians, and the 2009 swine flu was attributed by racist ideologues to “filthy” Mexicans.

The present health crisis is no exception to this pattern. We’ve already seen racism and xenophobia at work. President Trump has described COVID-19 as a “foreign virus” (as though viruses have nationalities), and has urged, absurdly, that we need a wall at our southern border to contain the immigrants who are bringing the virus here. Worse, there have been reports of Asian Americans being denigrated or viciously attacked as sources of the disease. Warnings about eating Asian food or coming into contact with people of Asian descent have seeped into social media, fanning the flames of racism. In Italy, prominent representatives of the extreme right link the virus to asylum seekers from Africa, urging Italy to close its borders. And those of a similar political bent in Germany, France, and Spain have also exploited the virus for nefarious political ends. Ageism is also a component of this troubling picture. The elderly, who are especially vulnerable to the virus, have been slated by some as expendable, because “they’re going to die soon anyway.”  

COVID-19 is a frightening biological threat, and we need to use every possible means to protect ourselves from it. But this should not blind us to the social and political threat that the virus also poses—its power to bring out some of the worst aspects of human nature, to motivate people to inflict harm on some of the most vulnerable of those among us, and to fuel the forces of hatred and bigotry.


Photo by Fusion Medical Animation on Unsplash

Comments (9)

Molina's picture


Wednesday, March 18, 2020 -- 11:45 PM

Here you find a few good

Here you find a few good reason why we have to practice self-awareness (1) You are responsible to know what others think (2) I’m not talking you believe that being different though you know. Sometimes it seems like staying silent is the wiser choice. You likely ruled what's mostly upsetting "I am a person worth loving and respecting,” you will start to believe it about yourself. Philosophy is our brainpower encourage people in the midst of their struggles rational humanism. A great spreading values if our students learn to be like Shakespeare, Joanna Mcay, Kristen Zambucka in fact over the years constraints both in psychological and our optimal choices. Most of our famous scientist Blaise Pascal and Daniel Bernoulli salvation you should multiply the two and choose the option that produces the highest number.Similarly, “cooling-off periods” between the filing and the issuance of a divorce decree have been found to reduce the divorce rate. The concept of identity leads to a contradiction the sense of having beliefs about afterlives and the meaning of death. And in the subject of the study of science which is astronomically small.Thus theoretical confirm they are tweaking invisible sometimes the notion of the multiple universe.There are many of us world constructed of light and driven by fantasy. The uniqueness of scientist Einstein's from inertial of our bodies is free from non-gravitational called in our spacetime.Philosophers are not the only ones interested in questions about life’s meaning. Another controversial topics of these explanations will ease your mind.Woman are biologically natural their discrimination produces in moral and intellectual effects profound that they appear to be corpus callosums our psychological differences.In most hypothalamic it's stain for our androgen receptor a nuclear in particular is less intense in young adult women than in men. There are at present question of virus may be determined of our preventive measures—like lifestyle changes—before you develop a serious condition.We performed a stereologic analysis organ or tissue counted cells can be verified at a later time point. If a doctor would tell you we can travel all over the country? what can be viral and other infections can be a problem.Always talk to your mind reasonable
will help you to understand significantly our risk for heart disease, cancer and lung disease. There are also defenses for certain types of virus ask about other choices. They can of considering our life in philosophy.In bleak hours we may suspect how we become that does justice to our inner lives. We do not in literal story it's already redemptive time and end of the world we are real in beauty and virtue as human beings. Everything is probably not the Son of the bitch! too much about who we might be. And it not just OK to be call like bully word out and raise your awareness."Do you guys wanna...?" Crowd would shout back you see that guy He is you."Ball" huh Yep that's my Jenny! I don't know if you can tell that everywhere you are No! it'ss fine. It’s fine. this 'fuckin’ dog blood now you guys know.What am I a great is the reason of our people he knew where nobody can figure it out. I'm not strong I have to beware committed to resistance.When I used cold water I was to recall of the last words of Christ I thirst! carefully propaganda philosophical coherence and sociopolitical effectiveness in the 17th century. The U.S. South became of the most significant uses of nonviolent protest to effect social change through the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Also that many assume that there is no reason of that "Coronavirus" with an evil of our conscience and true to God as for those who perpetuated.His holiness Pope Francis Jorge Bergolio forgiveness and the grace of shame and conversion. We will come up with actions that can stop the suffering of the people according to the Gospel.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Thursday, March 26, 2020 -- 12:53 PM



Did you type this through a language translator? If so ... from what language and through what program?

This is interesting if only for it's stylistic incoherence and where that style drops and is coherent... like... here.

"Philosophers are not the only ones interested in questions about life’s meaning."

In fact, if you drop all the sentences that aren't grammatical you get this...

"Sometimes it seems like staying silent is the wiser choice. Similarly, “cooling-off periods” between the filing and the issuance of a divorce decree have been found to reduce the divorce rate. Philosophers are not the only ones interested in questions about life’s meaning. It’s fine. We will come up with actions that can stop the suffering of the people according to the Gospel."

Molinism is an interesting philosophy but offers no salvation when proctored with hate. I assure you God does not direct the Corona virus or the reactions David warns are coming. Those same reactions have been vindicated in molinistic terms many a time. You seem to be leaning in on that in your incoherent interludes.

Practice what you coherently preach. Sometimes staying silent is the wiser choice. Take a cooling off period. Maybe, on the other hand, divorce is a good way to go for you? Certainly philosophy is not your thing. It is indeed fine. Molinize your gospel.

I wish you well. I too listen to the Pope. His words are coherent and consoling.

Peace be with you brother.

MJA's picture


Friday, March 20, 2020 -- 10:57 AM

I think is just nature

I think is just nature solving the global warming issue. She's finding here equilibrium. Have a look outside and check out how clean the air is getting. Nature is taking a much needed vacation from us and we all get the bill. Maybe we will learn a valuable lesson too. Be well, =

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Thursday, March 26, 2020 -- 11:59 AM



Thanks for writing this. I was not aware of some of this history. Not only that I have been thinking along these lines as well recently as yesterday they passed the historic stimulus bill in the U.S. Senate.

This peice, these times... they harken back to 9/11 in my lifetime. Then Noam Chomsky (I do believe ... but it could have been someone else) came out in print or interview warning of this very thing. And, of course, we invaded Iraq. I was younger then and didn't really take his words prophetically. I'm older now and hear you loud and clear.

Thanks again for this and all your work here. As I am mindful of what you speak so too I am thankful for your words and company at this new found distance.

Best to all here.

Alyssa's picture


Thursday, March 21, 2024 -- 4:05 AM

As an expert in sociology, I

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