COVID-19: Are We Really Living In A World of Viral Xenophobia?

by David Livingstone Smith

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

As I write these words, the world is in the path of a mounting pandemic. People are frightened. They should be. The novel coronavirus is dangerous. It can and does kill. But its biologically menacing character is just one part of the threat that it poses. The virus also presents us with a social threat.

Viruses and other microscopic sources of disease are unobservable to the naked eye. And even though we nowadays understand the causes and nature of infection, this theoretical knowledge doesn’t always affect our behavior as it should. There’s something uncanny about an invisible, lethal threat — something that can expose and exacerbate the fissures in a society, and can be readily exploited by racist and xenophobic ideologues.

The bubonic plague of the 14th century is a classic example. It entered Europe in 1347, and quickly swept across the continent, leaving a catastrophic death toll in its wake. As the plague advanced, terrified people looked for someone to blame for it. They turned to marginalized groups — the most vulnerable members of European society — especially the Jews. European Christians had been marinated in anti-Semitic beliefs for centuries. “The most vivid impression to be gained from medieval allusions to the Jew,” wrote historian Joshua Trachtenberg in his classic text The Devil and the Jews, “is of a hatred so vast and abysmal, so intense, that it leaves one gasping for comprehension.”

In this racist environment, a grassroots conspiracy theory arose. The bubonic plague, it was claimed, was a terrorist plot aimed at destroying Christian civilization. Jews were conspiring with North African Muslims to exterminate Christians by poisoning their water supplies. Ginned up by this preposterous idea, Christian mobs attacked Jewish communities, killing thousands of men, women, and children, often by burning them to death. Christian chroniclers matter-of-factly remarked on the “horrible means by which the Jews wished to extinguish all of Christendom, through their poisons of frogs and spiders mixed into oil and cheese” and dispassionately concluded that “the Jews deserved to be swallowed up in the flames.” Those Jews who managed to escape death fled to Poland and surrounding areas, rendering great swathes of Western Europe what the Nazis would later call Judenrein — “cleansed of Jews.”

You may think that this example is little more than testimony to an ignorant and brutal past, and that recent history does not echo it. But many similar things have happened since 1347. In 1899, bubonic plague made landfall in Hawaii. It had spread from China, and the first victims were Chinese immigrants to Hawaii. At the time, the Chinese were a despised racial minority whose lives did not matter. American health authorities cordoned off the Chinese community of Honolulu, imprisoning ten thousand people in a death-trap whose perimeter was patrolled by guards armed with fixed bayonets. One White health authority remarked, “Plague lives and breeds in filth and when it got to Chinatown, it found its natural habitat.”

Plague emerged a year later in San Francisco. Californian health authorities considered it a “racial disease” and therefore not a threat to Whites. The US government had already banned Chinese immigration to the United States, and the image of Chinese people as vectors of moral and physical infection was already well established by the time the plague erupted in San Francisco. “If as a nation we have a right to keep out infectious diseases,” US Senator James Blaine, a republican from Maine, opined, “if we have the right to exclude the criminal classes from coming to us, we surely have the right to exclude that immigration which reeks with impurity and which cannot come to us without…sowing the seeds of moral and physical disease, destitution, and death.” Consequently, Chinese Americans were subjected to demeaning and sometimes violent treatment in a misguided effort to protect Whites from this terrible disease.

These are just a few examples of an all-too-common pattern. During the Armenian genocide, militant Turks thought of Armenians as carriers of typhus who must be destroyed. And Nazi propaganda revivified the centuries-old trope of Jews as carriers of plague, describing the holocaust as an act of hygiene rather than as mass murder. Hitler explicitly associated Jews with the bubonic plague, writing in Mein Kampf, “This was pestilence, spiritual pestilence, worse than the Black Death of olden times, and the people was being infected with it.” More recently, the AIDS epidemic was laid at the door of gay men and Haitians, and the 2009 swine flu was attributed by racist ideologues to “filthy” Mexicans.

The present health crisis is no exception to this pattern. We’ve already seen racism and xenophobia at work. President Trump has described COVID-19 as a “foreign virus” (as though viruses have nationalities), and has urged, absurdly, that we need a wall at our southern border to contain the immigrants who are bringing the virus here. Worse, there have been reports of Asian Americans being denigrated or viciously attacked as sources of the disease. Warnings about eating Asian food or coming into contact with people of Asian descent have seeped into social media, fanning the flames of racism. In Italy, prominent representatives of the extreme right link the virus to asylum seekers from Africa, urging Italy to close its borders. And those of a similar political bent in Germany, France, and Spain have also exploited the virus for nefarious political ends. Ageism is also a component of this troubling picture. The elderly, who are especially vulnerable to the virus, have been slated by some as expendable, because “they’re going to die soon anyway.”

COVID-19 is a frightening biological threat, and we need to use every possible means to protect ourselves from it. But this should not blind us to the social and political threat that the virus also poses — its power to bring out some of the worst aspects of human nature, to motivate people to inflict harm on some of the most vulnerable of those among us, and to fuel the forces of hatred and bigotry.

Philosophy Talk ( is a nationally syndicated public radio program produced by KALW on behalf of Stanford University.

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