Reacting to fear with hatred is a plague as old as pandemics themselves

With Turan Kayaoglu, Published May 31, 2020 in Tacoma’s News Tribune

Since Covid-19’s arrival, prejudice and fear may be spreading more rapidly than the virus itself.  As healthcare workers around the world bravely toil against Covid-19, we must pitch in to combat this disturbing side effect.

In the U.S., discriminatory practices in the face of this disease may be traced to President Trump’s regrettable labelling of Covid-19 as “The Chinese virus.’’ Nationwide, Asians are reporting surges in racist treatment. Just a few days ago the TNT (5/25) reported numerous incidences where Asian residents of Seattle were harassed, spit on, chased down and threatened, with a man yelling “Chinese disease!” after them.

Such responses are not new: Unknown and unfamiliar diseases, especially deadly ones, often leave us searching for outsiders to blame.

A horrendous example occurred in the 14th century when Europeans were terrorized by “The Black Death,” an agonizing and lethal plague that swept across the continent. Residents in one German town suggested Jews were protected from the disease. Speculation arose they were poisoning the wells.

It didn’t take much for Anti-Semitic pograms to erupt and spread across Germany then westward. Christians tortured, tormented, and executed their towns’ Jewish population. Jews fled to the more tolerant towns, although in the case of Cologne, panicked leaders took up arms and killed all 25,000 of them. This was Europe’s worst instance of Jewish persecution until World War II.

Fast forward half a millennium, and the propensity to blame others for the arrival of deadly diseases continues. In 1892 a well-known New York physician blamed a cholera outbreak on “filthy immigrants.” In 1918, the second worst pandemic in human history was labeled The Spanish Flu. The “Great Influenza’ as it is more aptly called, likely originated in Kansas, and certainly not Spain. The name reflected a worldwide impulse to blame foreigners.

Then in the 1980s gay men were assaulted for bringing HIV/AIDS to their communities. Unfortunately, the press played into this demonization by publishing headlines such as “Alert over ‘gay plague.’”  In fact, AIDS was first labelled GRID, for Gay Related Immunodeficiency Disease, even though all communities were at risk.

President Trump’s use of “The Chinese virus” continues this tendency to single out vulnerable groups. India’s health ministry announced that an Islamic seminary was responsible for the coronavirus.  Some officials even called the disease “corona jihad,” giving free rein to deep anti-Muslim sentiment among India’s Hindu population. Muslims in India have been assaulted with cricket bats, attacked in mosques, and been victims of boycotting campaigns.  Harking back to 14th c. Germany, some Indians have suggested the coronavirus is part of a Muslim plot.

Scapegoating vulnerable groups in the face of a deadly disease reflects our feelings of danger, terror, and helplessness. Scapegoating turns worse when nationalists, populists, and religious fanatics benefit by stoking the flames. Real fear, expressed as nativism, can be turned into political weapons that target marginalized and minority communities.

We are hopeful the patterns of the past remain there. Newspapers and social media at home and abroad contain heartwarming stories of new heroes. We’ve come to appreciate the creative impulses of people around the globe, so many of whom are posting pet videos, modeling art work, sharing meals, and engaging in a new brand of quarantine jokes. We read stories about cherished family members thousands of miles away who died. We didn’t know them, but wish we had. There seems to be growing recognition that when it comes to fighting diseases, we are all in it together.  This time, we hope, the better side of humanity is winning out over our worst side.

Just as healthcare workers fight this disease, we must do our part. We must remain vigilant, and demand that, amidst our fears, governments model how to respond, and that they monitor and halt any hatred directed toward vulnerable groups. For like a virus, once started hate fueled by demagogues is not easy to stop.