Coronavirus and the Racist History of Pandemics | Unpack That | The Root

Coronavirus disease, or COVID-19, has traveled across the world, and its numbers—of new infections and deaths—are quite distressing.

As COVID-19 spreads, so does fear, prejudice and xenophobia, or a fear of “foreigners.” The virus appeared in Wuhan, China in December 2019, and Chinese people (along with other East Asian folks) have been turned into villains—those thought to be the carriers of this disease. Hence, the rise of a more specific form of bigotry: sinophobia, or the fear of Chinese people.

Merlin Chowkwanyun is a historian and an assistant professor of socio-medical sciences at Columbia University. He says that this idea that people from other countries carry contagious disease dates back to the 19th century. Chowkwanyun says that a pandemic like COVID-19 causes people to look for scapegoats, or “outsiders” and creates a “rhetoric of blame.”

“And it [the rhetoric of blame] really follows a couple, I think, basic themes that have been remarkably persistent through many, many decades, across centuries. One is that the outsiders have this kind of intrinsic quality, something maybe biological, but it makes them more prone to getting diseases and to affecting others,” Chowkwanyun said. “And the other [theme] is sort of related to that—but I think it’s a distinct—it’s that these outsiders behave badly so they don’t clean themselves. They eat strange foods. They live in cluttered spaces, very cramped spaces.”

-Felice León

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