The unbearable foreignness of germs

(Part 1)

Hi everyone,

Had to take a hiatus because of some personal stuff and — *gestures wildly* — all of this. But now that I’m not going anywhere due to the pandemic, I have plenty of time! Ish.

Anyway, I hope everyone is safe and healthy and at least six feet away from everyone else. <3

Given the circumstances, I thought it’d be a good time to discuss an age-old trope that has taken on new vigor in these times: the association of immigrants with disease.

Many have taken to using terms like “Wuhan virus” or “China virus” to refer to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Like, remember that time when the U.S. president crossed out the word “Coronavirus” in his briefing notes and wrote “China virus” over it?

Some pundits have defended this usage on Twitter, dismissing concerns over this characterization as just another manifestation of “PC culture” or an impractical distraction from the real issues, or some combination of the two. One senator (hailing from a state where people sometimes eat rattlesnakes) blamed the pandemic on “some of the cultural practices” in China, arguing that people there “eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that.” He blamed China not only for COVID-19, but for other diseases, including Swine Flu (which originated in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Even right-wing Indian trolls have taken this up, arguing that if “Spanish Flu” (also first reported in the U.S. and not Spain! ), “Ebola,” and “MERS” are O.K. — (they wouldn’t be if they were named today, per the World Health Organization’s naming guidelines) — then why not “China/Chinese virus”?

I’m not under the illusion that I will convince any trolls or pundits otherwise, nor is this newsletter about that. It is, however, exploring age-old tropes, and how they inform policies and actions. So here goes:

1) Language doesn’t exist in a vacuum! It has real, concrete consequences. Associating diseases with certain communities enables violence against those communities. In the U.S., Asian Americans are already experiencing hate crimes and violent attacks, according to the New York Times. In India, people from states in the Northeast — the ones that border China — are also experiencing such venom.

2) That terminology helps politicians “other” the disease — and therefore, externalize responsibility for its spread. That can cost lives.

3) Finally, language that associates immigrants and foreigners with disease is then used to justify exclusionary policies. Governments take steps to turn away people who do not pose a real threat in terms of transmission, and who may be in need of protection themselves from the disease in question and from other threats back home. That also costs lives.

Unfortunately, this is one of the oldest tricks in the playbook, as we will see below.

The reading:

I found two articles in reputable medical journals that explore this connection. Today, I’m going to go through the first one:

The gist:

The authors examine three phases in U.S. immigration history: From 1882, when the United States first banned Chinese laborers from immigrating, to 1924, when the National Origins Act, which favored Western European immigration and excluded all Asians, was passed; the period from 1924 to 1965, when exclusionary quotas enacted by that law were in place; and finally, 1965 to the date of the article’s publication in 2002, when America opened its doors to immigrants from India, China, Latin America, and beyond.

They conclude:

In each of these phases, even as the political and social currents shifted, a series of interrelated factors shaped immigrant health and health care in American society.

First, the social perception of the threat of the infected immigrant was typically far greater than the actual danger. Indeed, the number of “diseased” immigrants has always been infinitesimal when compared with the number of newcomers admitted to this country.

Second, Americans have tended to view illness among immigrants already settled in the United States as an imported phenomenon.

Third, policymakers have employed strikingly protean medical labels of exclusion.

If authorities and anti-immigration advocates found that one classification failed to reject the “most objectionable,” they soon created a new one that emphasized contagion, mental disorder, chronic disability, or even a questionable physique. Although such labels never became the primary reason for debarring specific immigrant groups, their widespread use contributed to durable biological metaphors that explained, usually in catastrophic terms, the potential risks of unrestricted immigration to the nation's social health.

Highlighted highlights:

While we romanticize the Ellis Island days (insofar as they present a period of greater hospitality to immigration), Markel and Stern write that this was when discriminatory medical screenings of immigrants, and the targeting of certain races and classes, started:

For example, Mexican and Chinese laborers, who donned work clothes and did not display the fashionable dress of more affluent immigrants, were subjected to harsher medical scrutiny, more frequently poked for blood and urine samples, and disinfected with chemical agents (Markel and Stern 1999; Shah 2001).

Indeed, it was nearly always the case that travelers in first-, and most in second-, class on ships and trains entering the country underwent a much more  limited appraisal than did those in steerage. In order to avoid more invasive and traumatic medical examinations, the wealthier immigrants, especially before 1907, were encouraged by European and Asian shipping agents to purchase a first- or second-class ticket in order to keep clear of the intrusive eyes of the American doctors.

So maybe all of this made sense, because it was a different time and people brought scary diseases? Nah, write Markel and Stern:

“In any year between 1891 and 1924, less than 3 percent of the total number of immigrants seeking entry to the United States were rejected for reasons of a contagious, infectious, or loathsome disease; mental disorder; or physical disability.

What did change during this period was the percentage of those immigrants debarred for medical reasons out of the total number debarred for any reason (e.g., being a contract laborer, criminal, or prostitute; showing evidence of an untoward political belief system; or being deemed “likely to become a public charge”). For example, in 1898, of the total number of immigrants excluded, only 2 percent were shut out based on medical criteria. In 1913, this percentage rose to 57 percent, and by 1915, it was 69 percent.

More significantly, this proportional increase was not the result of a higher incidence of contagious or infectious disease; rather, it was due to a growing list of ailments, physical disabilities, and, over time, determinations of moral status (Kraut 1994; U.S. Department of the Treasury 1891–1901,1902–1911; USPHS 1912–1930; Yew 1980).”

Nativist labor unions and politicians framed Chinese laborers in the United States as as threatening on many fronts at this time. This “yellow peril” narrative included painting Chinese immigrants as the carriers of disease. How did that reflect in the time’s deportation policies? Well, between 1890 and 1924, while the Chinese made up only 1 percent of the immigrants coming to the United States, they made up 4 percent of yearly deportations, Markel and Stern write.

And then, of course, as we all know, what started as nativist backlash progressed to an all-out ban, enshrined in law, that extended to many other categories of foreigners:

Following on the heels of a series of progressively detailed laws dictating the entry of the foreign born—such as the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the 1891 Immigration Act, and the 1893 Quarantine Act—the 1924 act represented both a crescendo of nativism and the start of a new era of immigration and racial exclusion in American society.

As several scholars have argued, while still stigmatizing and severely limiting “new” immigrants, the National Origins Act nonetheless symbolically permitted them to enter the realm of white America by classifying them as Caucasian while categorically defining Mexicans and Asians as outsiders (Jacobson 1998; Ngai 1999). Whichever the group in question, however, categories of medical exclusion had become closely entwined with racial labels and perceptions of foreigners as inassimilable and diseased.

After 1965, America became more diverse, but this association between certain groups of foreigners and disease remained solid, and even strengthened during times of medical crisis. In 1993, during the AIDS epidemic, then-President Bill Clinton signed into law immigration laws that have given us many of the most criticized parts of the U.S. immigration system. He also added HIV as a criterion to keep out immigrants. Markel and Stern explain:

One thing had not changed, however: the assumption that many infectious diseases originated beyond American borders and were trafficked in by foreigners. This perception was supported by immigration health policy, which required only potential immigrants and visa solicitors, not visiting travelers or American citizens returning from abroad, to undergo medical examinations before leaving their countries of origin.

Thus, the realistic menace of imported germs—which scorn all boundaries and can incubate just as elusively and easily in an American tourist heading back from a vacation in the Bahamas as in a Russian visa applicant seeking to join her relatives in Chicago—was eclipsed by the recalcitrant connection between foreigners and disease.

Shorter things I’m reading: 

Twitter pals and colleagues Felipe De La Hoz and Gaby Del Valle have a great newsletter: Border / Lines, where they break down the big immigration news items of the week. In a recent edition, they broke some news about how ICE was bringing back stranded Americans on the same flights it was using to deport immigrants to Honduras.

Turns out, these deportation flights also have an interesting history. Check out this Twitter thread by Adam Goodman, a historian at University of Chicago Illinois, that goes over some highlights:

Coming up next:

I know I’m supposed to tackle the rest of the Fischer book, Migration History, but I pushed it back because it is evergreen. And because I have ADD.

In the next edition, coming soon, I’m going to tackle a paper exploring how the threat of contagion has historically informed policies at the Southern border of the United States.


If you have suggestions for books/papers I should read, digest, and annotate here — including any that you might have written — add it in here! I may tackle it going forward. Once I have accumulated a critical mass of suggestions, I can also make the list public for easy reference. 

Over and out.