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As the COVID-19 pandemic spread around the world to the US, bias incidents against members of the Asian American community began to increase significantly. As of May 13th, the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council received more than 1,800 self-reported bias incidents from across the country. Another poll published on April 28th found that 32% of Americans had witnessed someone blaming Asians for the pandemic, a number which increased to 60% when asking Asians. Reports of hate and bias incidents in Oregon increased 366%.

The bias of language almost certainly has played a role. For months, many in the government and media insisted on referring to the virus as the “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan flu,” in direct defiance of a 2015 directive from the World Health Organization that diseases should not be named after people, places or animals, which could be negatively impacted by the association.

This is nothing new. America has a long history of racializing disease. For instance, take the plague that hit the US in the early 1900s:

    • By the time the rats carrying the plague reached San Francisco in 1900, the narrative among white Americans was that there was something about Asian populations that made them susceptible to the plague. Immediately after the first confirmed casualty of the plague – a Chinese-born lumber yard owner – the entirety of San Francisco’s Chinatown was quarantined.

    • In Portland, a more informed and de-racialized approach to combating the plague – a massive rat extermination campaign – was a resounding success, with Portland becoming the only West Coast port that did not have a single incidence of plague that year. However, that did not stop some in the community from using the threat of the disease to advocate for segregation and quarantine of certain races. State bacteriologist Ralph Matson told the Oregon Journal, “If we cannot compel the Hindu, Chinamen and others to live up to our ideals of cleanliness, and if they persist in congregating in hovels and hoarding together like animals … the strictest kind of exclusion would not be too severe a remedy.”

  • During the final plague outbreak in Los Angeles in 1924, as soon as the first few cases were identified as being among Mexicans residents, the “Mexican district” of LA was quarantined by the city health department, and in one instance, management at the Biltmore Hotel fired its entire Mexican labor force of 150 people when they arrived at work. Associating Mexicans with this disease did not end with the quarantine, and a 1928 report by the California Development Association titled Survey of the Mexican Labor Problem in California described Mexicans as “sizzling with disease.” (Whitewashed Adobe by William Deverell)

 

Since the beginning of white people’s occupation of America, race and disease have been linked. Among the most vulnerable populations during the COVID-19 pandemic are Native Americans. The impact of COVID-19 on the Native American community is reminiscent of previous disease outbreaks that ravaged Native American communities for centuries, resulting in catastrophic loss of life, far greater than even the worst-case scenarios for COVID-19.

Histories of disease and Native Americans have emphasized the “virgin-soil epidemics” theory, however, new research provides a much more complicated picture of disease in American Indian history. According to an article in the Atlantic:

“The virgin-soil-epidemic hypothesis was valuable in countering earlier theories that attributed Native American population decline to racial inferiority, but its singular emphasis on biological difference implied that population collapses were nothing more than historical accidents. By stressing the importance of social conditions created by human decisions and actions, the new scholarship provides a far more disturbing picture. It also helps us understand the problems facing Native communities today as they battle the novel coronavirus.”

“These same conditions would also make Native communities susceptible to a host of other diseases…Native vulnerability had—and has—nothing to do with racial inferiority or, since those initial incidents, lack of immunity; rather, it has everything to do with concrete policies pursued by the United States government, its states, and its citizens.”

“Although the virgin-soil-epidemic hypothesis may have been well intentioned, its focus on the brief, if horrific, moment of initial contact consigns disease safely to the distant past and provides colonizers with an alibi. Indigenous communities are fighting more than a virus. They are contending with the ongoing legacy of centuries of violence and dispossession.”

Racializing disease is part of our American history, but it doesn’t have to be part of our future. We must fight systemic racism that causes communities of color to be more susceptible to disparities in health outcomes. As Ohio commissioner Kevin L. Boyce stated, “Racism has been a pandemic long before the current coronavirus pandemic”. Now is the time to work towards racial justice so that we can achieve equitable health outcomes for communities of color.

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