Even as public health experts race to contain the novel coronavirus outbreak, a potentially more fearsome and shadowy pandemic—aimed at uninfected people unjustly fingered as potential carriers—grows.
Calls for bans on the movement of peoples of Asian descent—which would subject millions of people to unnecessary and potentially life-threatening entrapment—are trending on social media, while in real life, the normal rules of social cohesion have started to break down. Outside a Chinatown restaurant in Sydney, Australia on January 28, for example, a 60-year-old man died from cardiac arrest, while bystanders reportedly refused to provide CPR for fear of catching coronavirus.
Societies facing novel pathogens have often engaged in scapegoating of marginalized populations, especially when the infective source can be linked to a distant place and the disease associated with a racially distinct “foreign” peoples. During the nineteenth century, rather than curtail commercial shipping, which ferried cholera around the globe, rattled cholera-stricken societies from New York to London turned their ire onto Irish immigrants instead. In 1832, a group of Irish immigrants, irrationally scorned as carriers, were first quarantined, and then secretly massacred and buried in a mass grave. Erroneously blamed for spreading HIV in the early 1980s, Haitians were beaten and harassed. Falsely scapegoated as carriers of SARS in 2003, Canadians of Chinese descent were kicked out of their homes and their businesses avoided.
There’s reason to suspect the pandemic of xenophobia in the wake of today’s novel coronavirus will wreak similar havoc. Public fears of contamination by invasive foreigners reached a fevered pitch even before the first case of pneumonia at the Wuhan seafood market hit the news. Right-wing populist leaders have for years singled out foreigners as vectors of crime, terror and disease, as if they alone posed such threats. In Bulgaria, a 2013 study of articles about migrants found that the two most commonly appearing words were “threat” and “disease.” In Greece, right-wing vigilantes have marched into hospitals to evict sickly migrants. In the US, Trump and his allies have long raised alarms about the contagiousness of unwanted foreigners, ignoring that of the rest of the populace. “Tremendous infectious disease,” Donald Trump falsely proclaimed during his campaign for the White House in 2015, “is pouring across the border.” In 2018, Fox News featured a commentator who claimed that Central American migrants would contaminate the country with smallpox and leprosy, an especially ludicrous claim, given that smallpox was declared eradicated in 1980.
Part of the problem is that, since the advent of germ theory in the late nineteenth century, public health authorities have tackled infectious diseases as a problem of invasive microbes, which must be isolated and destroyed with killing chemicals. As a public health strategy, that approach works. But as shorthand for understanding our risk of disease, it leaves out critical context. Instead of considering the universe of microbial threats around us and our personal risk of disease, which emerges from the dynamic interplay between pathogen, immune system, and environment, we zero in instead on the two peculiar aspects of contagion that are hallmarks of invasion: the foreignness of the germ and the pace and scale of its dispersal.
We highlight foreignness in the way we name pathogens: it’s the “Wuhan” flu; the “Ebola” virus, named after a river in the Democratic Republic of Congo; the “Spanish” influenza, even though that microbe didn’t originate in Spain. Tellingly, we don’t apply this same nomenclature when a pathogen’s origins are closer to home. HIV, discovered in NYC in the 1980s is not “NYC-1” and MRSA, which first exploded in Boston, is not, say, “the Boston plague.” Media reports that describe in lurid terms the “wet market” where the novel coronavirus likely emerged—wafting a “sweet and nauseating smell of death,” as one commentator put it—similarly suggest that it is an uniquely strange and insalubrious site. It’s not. Novel pathogens with deadly effects emerge from even the most anodyne of places: the MRSA-infected astroturf of a college football field, the flu-virus-filled barns of a state fair, the relentless demand of the worried well, echoing in clinics across the country, for antibiotics to treat viral infections, for which they don’t work.
Policy responses and news reports that focus on the pathogen’s dispersal as if it were the most consequential factor in its deadliness similarly cast the outbreak as a problem of invasion. Pathogens do not rampage like malevolent armies on the march, causing damage in direct relation to the scale and pace of their spread. Some pathogens spread widely and cause very little harm; most others only cause harm in some exposed people and not others. Social and environmental conditions play as much of a role shaping the impact of a pathogen as its dispersal does, which is why cholera bacteria still lurk harmlessly in our coastal waters and malarial mosquitoes in our wetlands, even without any cholera or malaria outbreaks in our bodies.
News outlets such as Fox News are now using the same inflammatory language to depict the coronavirus outbreak that they employ to describe people on the move, dubbing it a “viral invasion.” Such overtly alarmist rhetoric will almost certainly increase public pressure for discriminatory, unnecessary, and even unlawful policy measures aimed against socially disempowered populations. In psychological studies, simply heightening people’s awareness of contagion around them inflames their xenophobic sentiments. In Australia, the government has already decreed that evacuees from the outbreak’s epicenter will be quarantined in the same remote immigration detention centers where officials have subjected thousands of asylum seekers to what observers have called cruel and inhumane conditions.
It is possible that this newly discovered microbe could exact a hefty death toll. Even a pathogen which seems not particularly virulent compared to, say, the seasonal influenza, can slay a lot of people, if it spreads far and wide. But the deadly potency of the coming bio-pandemic dissipates quickly, because our immune systems rapidly learn to recognize and eliminate novel microbes to which they’ve been once exposed. Until society evolves a similar functionality, the threat of pandemics caused by fear, panic, and xenophobia persist today, just as in the past, its potency fully intact.
Correction, Feb. 7
The original version of this story misstated when a man died outside a Chinatown restaurant in Sydney. It was on Jan. 29, not Jan. 28. The original version also misstated when Trump declared “tremendous infectious disease is pouring across the border.” It was during his presidential campaign, not in his initial campaign announcement.