The rising panic over coronavirus is likely to make containing it harder

tags: epidemics, Disease, cholera, coronavirus, tuberculosis

Danielle B. Wetmore is a lead educator at the Tenement Museum in New York City. She leads the tour "Life and Death at the Tenement," held monthly at the museum.

The coronavirus outbreak, and fears it might be becoming a pandemic, is wreaking economic havoc across the globe and fueling intensifying anxiety in the United States. Given the virus’s outbreak seems to have started in Wuhan, China, some of the information bouncing around social media is feeding racist sentiments toward Asian people. Restaurateurs in Chinatowns have noted a distinct drop in business since reports of coronavirus have become more widespread. An entire subreddit is dedicated to creating memes about coronavirus, positing racist origins of the disease.

This is nothing new — these are mistakes we have made before.

The popular idea that diseases enter the United States from other places, often through immigration, even led to support for severely limiting immigration at the turn of the 20th century. But this approach has not only restricted immigration and reinforced racist tendencies — it has also undermined medical response efforts to diseases, delaying treatment to those in need and extending epidemics. Despite advances in public health over the past two centuries, Americans continue to use concern about sickness to justify xenophobic practices, ultimately fueling racism alongside searches for medical solutions.

In 1832, cholera broke out in New York City. At this point, people did not yet know how the disease was transmitted or where it came from. Yet stories quickly began to surface of “Asiatic cholera,” clearly linking the disease with a group of people who were already facing discrimination in the United States. The first people in New York to get infected with cholera were those working at the docks — many of them part of the immigrant working class. Cholera is spread through people consuming fecal matter, which is more likely in places where cleaning is difficult. Those of the higher classes presumed it was the living conditions of working-class people, along with their presumably deficient morality, that caused them to contract the disease.

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