Scapegoating during pandemics has always "plague"d humanity

Scapegoating during pandemics has always "plague"d humanity

April 23, 20202 min read

Though it was widely known that the first known cases of coronavirus could be traced back to Wuhan China, many Americans were shocked and saddened to hear President Donald Trump repeatedly calling the coronavirus the "Chinese virus" during a news conference in March. Though President Trump insisted "It's not racist at all," Asian-Americans have reported incidents of racial slurs and physical abuse over the perception that China caused COVID-19.

Fr. Joseph Ryan, PhD teaches a course on the History of Disease, with a focus on the Bubonic Plague, and notes that this type of xenophobia hysteria is not new when it comes to pandemics.

“A theme that we can see with these epidemics is hysteria and the scapegoating of people who are liminal and have no defenders.” Say Fr. Ryan. “We also see nativism and xenophobia evident in people's response to epidemic illness. Pandemics test the humanity of human populations and sometimes we are inhumane in the face of the fear of death from such diseases.” Here are a few examples from history of how humanity shifts blame during times of great stress:

1348- Bubonic Plague

One third of Europe's population was carried away by this epidemic. It spread on trade routes. The event caused different expressions of hysteria among Europeans including the persecution of the Jewish community.

1832- Cholera

In the United States, Irish emigrants were scapegoated. Like plague, cholera traveled on the existing trade routes.

1918- Spanish Influenza

It was only given that name because the Spaniards were the first journalists to talk about the disease. Influenza came from Kansas and spread through the transport of American soldiers to Europe to fight World War One. It traveled to British colonies in India and Africa via the transport of British troops. The result was the rise of independence movements in these countries.

1980s- HIV/AIDS

The HIV crisis reflected similar hysteria directed against gay men.

2014- Ebola

Another event that reflected hysteria is the recent outbreak of Ebola in West Africa. The governors of New York and New Jersey threatened to close their airports, though there was little chance of Ebola breaking out in the United States. To the best of my knowledge, only two Americans developed the disease.

To contact Fr. Joseph Ryan, email

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