Xenophobia in the Time of Quarantines

“Epidemics do not create abnormal situations but rather sharpen existing behavior which betray deeply rooted and continuing social imbalances.” Maynard Swanson, “The Sanitation Syndrome”, 1977

In a race to contain the outbreak of the new coronavirus, governments from Milan to San Francisco are implementing varying levels of social distancing and quarantines. As we watch the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to reflect on how racial, ethnic and other prejudices harm effective health responses. A glance at modern history shows us that the same measures intended to stifle the spread of infectious disease have also served as fuel for racism and xenophobia.

In 1901, bubonic plague swept British colonial Cape Town, paving the way for one of the most enduring architectures of oppression of the 20th century: the South African township. During the epidemic, plague became an opportunity to apply segregationist and racist responses to health concerns in the city. The response from colonial officials was to rationalize existing and unfounded racist, segregationist beliefs and forcibly remove most of the city’s black population from its homes and neighborhoods. These groups were transferred to quarantine stations and isolated from European populations. This segregationist and racist response, carried out under the authority of a health emergency, was the foundation for much of the apartheid structures we would see emerge in the latter 20th century.

Despite over 100 years passing since the Cape Town epidemic, there are several troubling similarities between it and COVID-19. Then as now, there are no effective medications or vaccines for the disease, leaving social distancing, quarantine, border closures and trade controls as the dominant responses. As we witness spates of xenophobic violence, Sinophobia and other anti-Asian sentiment, it is important for us to notice whose perspective dominates responses to epidemics. Rather than falling victim to paranoia and violence, it is important to recognize our shared vulnerability to this disease not as fractured social groups but as a human race.

Source: Swanson, Maynard W. “The Sanitation Syndrome: Bubonic Plague and Urban Native Policy in the Cape Colony, 1900–1909.” The Journal of African History, 1977, 387–410.