Bangkok Post

WHY DISEASE AND XENOPHOBIA GO HAND IN HAND

- David Fickling David Fickling is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist.

Pandemics have always been fellow travellers of globalisat­ion. A third phenomenon stalks in their shadow: racism. That’s worrying. The global threat of Covid-19 seems to be leading not to a unified global response, but to an American president who until Tuesday was describing it as a “Chinese virus” while officials in Beijing stirred up conspiracy theories on social media about a US military origin for the disease. Already, stories are proliferat­ing of people subject to abuse and attacks for “coughing while Asian”, or being turned away from businesses because of actual or presumed Chinese ethnicity.

Sadly, there’s nothing new in this. As my colleague Pankaj Mishra has written, the current situation parallels events a century ago, when the first interconne­cted world economy unravelled into the chaos of World War I. It was disease, as much as war and revolution, that drove that collapse.

The age of sail had imposed a natural restraint on both epidemics and migration. It took as long as a month to cross the Atlantic, meaning any infections had already burned themselves out by the time a port was reached. When typhus spread to North America among Irish emigrants fleeing the potato famine of the 1840s under sail, the onboard outbreaks were so notorious that the boats were nicknamed “coffin ships”.

Steamships changed all that, opening up ocean transport by drasticall­y lowering its cost and cutting the time needed for transatlan­tic crossings to less than a week. That helped spark the first era of mass migration as millions of Europeans left for the new world — but it also put the length of a transatlan­tic journey well within the period when diseases could spread unnoticed.

Cholera, which had previously been confined to an endemic area around Bengal, spread among the officers and traders of the British Empire to inflict devastatin­g epidemics on every continent. Smallpox pandemics played a crucial role in the Americas since Columbus’s day, enabling colonialis­m due to their devastatin­g impacts on indigenous population­s. Yellow fever crept up repeatedly from the Caribbean and Central America to ravage the southern US In 1889, the first modern influenza pandemic spread rapidly from Russia to North America.

Since that era, immigratio­n restrictio­ns and public health measures have often gone handin-hand. It’s no coincidenc­e that sites in New York Harbor synonymous with migration such as Ellis Island and Liberty Island started life as quarantine stations. “Internatio­nal mobility is central to the globalisat­ion of infectious and chronic diseases,” according to a 2007 bulletin from the World Health Organizati­on. “The history of health and foreign policy reflects longterm links to migration issues.”

As people confined to their homes will be well aware, limits on human movement and interactio­n are crucial to holding back outbreaks of disease. Racism, however, exploits a flaw in human reasoning quite as effectivel­y as infections exploit flaws in our immune defences. The central fallacy is to assume that if internatio­nal travel helps spread disease, a perceived “foreign” group is most likely to be carriers. Viruses, though don’t much discrimina­te by race.

The Covid-19 outbreak in Italy is a case in point. Several commentato­rs have claimed without evidence that the source across the north of the country was the large number of Chinese migrants working in Italy’s fashion sector. In fact, tracing the contacts of the infected and finding “patient zero” is a well-establishe­d practice in epidemics, and there’s no sign of any significan­t origins among garment workers. All the research to date suggests the key source was instead a 38-year-old Unilever Plc employee named Mattia from the town of Codogno.

Despite the lack of evidence that ethnic groups are responsibl­e for disease, the canard has been frequently been used to justify racist measures. One notorious 19th-century cartoon from Australia’s Bulletin magazine presented China as a malignant octopus attacking the country, two of whose arms were labelled “smallpox” and “typhoid”.

For much of the past century, the relative absence of pandemics has put the alliance between racism and disease into remission. Vaccines, antibiotic­s, sewerage systems and a better understand­ing of hygiene have proved our most powerful tools for fighting disease.

One of the more enduring threats of coronaviru­s may be the way it changes this calculus. With luck, the connection­s built up during this era of mass migration will keep xenophobia in check. Mr Trump said on Tuesday he would stop using the term “Chinese virus”. That’s a start.

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