Scapegoating During Pandemics Has Always "Plagued" Humanity

Scapegoating During Pandemics Has Always "Plagued" Humanity

April 23, 20202 min read

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

Rev. Joseph Ryan, OSA, PhD, teaches a course on the history of disease, with a focus on the bubonic plague, and notes that this type of xenophobic 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,” says 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 pandemic-related stress:

1348: The Bubonic Plague

A third of Europe's population was eliminated by this epidemic, which spread along trade routes. The event caused different expressions of hysteria among Europeans, including the persecution of the Jewish community.

1832: Cholera

Like the bubonic plague, cholera traveled along trade routes. In the United States, Irish immigrants were scapegoated.

1918: Spanish Influenza

It gained its name because the first journalists to talk about the disease were from Spain. Influenza came from Kansas and spread through the transport of American soldiers to Europe to fight in the First World War. Later, it traveled to British colonies in India and Africa via the transport of British troops, and the result was the rise of independence movements in these countries.

1980s: HIV/AIDS

The HIV/AIDS crisis caused hysteria surrounding gay men.

2014: Ebola

Another event that sparked hysteria was 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 the virus breaking out in the United States. (To the best of Fr. Ryan's knowledge, only two Americans developed the disease.)

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