The real danger of coronavirusRoundup
tags: Chinese history, Xenophobia, coronavirus
Jessica Hauger is a doctoral student in Duke University’s department of history studying healing and colonialism in the Indigenous history of North America.
n Dec. 31, medical personnel in the Chinese city of Wuhan identified a new strain of coronavirus, a viral family that infects the respiratory system. Since then, 6,000 people in China have been confirmed infected and at least 130 have died. By Jan. 23, 11 million people in Wuhan were quarantined and with other travel networks and large gatherings restricted, the lives and livelihoods of about 25 million people in China were constrained.
As #CoronavirusOutbreak tops Twitter’s trending topics, sensationalized videos of East Asian people eating live rats, bats and frogs populate social media feeds alongside images of long lines and conflict in Chinese hospitals. Echoing the public discourse of recent Ebola virus outbreaks in West Africa, a sense of chaos, fear and even disgust permeates Western discussions of coronavirus.
While addressing the outbreak will take a global public health effort, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has declared the current risk to the American public is low. If 21st-century outbreaks like SARS, MERS and Ebola virus are any indication, it is likely American fear of contracting coronavirus — and the xenophobic, racist assumptions that drive it — carries a risk far greater to most people in this country than the virus itself. Historically, infectious disease has generated racist discourse that blames victim populations for the perceived threat, justifying political responses that threatened human rights.
Discourses about disease, contagion and otherness go back centuries, and have often been motivated by the mobility of people and goods between settlements, states and continents. They have a prominent history in the United States, where, for example, officials began using public health to excuse the protracted detainment of Hispanic people at the southern border in the 1840s. In another case, Civil War-era federal officials argued that an outbreak of smallpox among freed people was a direct consequence of emancipation, a logic they used to excuse their failure to respond with any public health effort. In another smallpox epidemic that hit North America in 1898, all indigenous people in Oklahoma were banned from boarding trains or leaving their reservations based on the unfounded belief that they were responsible for the disease’s spread.
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