Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) have repeatedly denied the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s clear guidance on the effectiveness of masks and social distancing. According to doctors, this has resulted in a higher rate of covid-19 cases. Texas leads the country in child deaths related to the coronavirus. Covid-related deaths in children in Florida have more than doubled since August.
Texas and Florida have refused to pass regulations as the number of cases have soared, and both governors have falsely blamed migrants for the spread of the coronavirus. Abbot has ordered state troopers to pull over any vehicles occupied by migrants, claiming it would curb coronavirus transmission. DeSantis has baselessly blamed President Biden’s immigration policy for increases in cases in Florida.
Ignoring science to maintain business interests while blaming migrants and marginalized populations for the spread of disease is not new. In fact, governments have long used the threat of disease as an opportunity to surveil and police migrants, while continuing business unencumbered by restrictions. This strategy has led to prolonged epidemics and suffering for everyone — especially marginalized populations.
In the 19th century, epidemics spread across the globe as European shipping technologies allowed goods, people and disease to travel at speeds previously unseen. For example, cholera, initially endemic to India, began to spread widely as British and French imperial shipping routes penetrated India, Africa and Asia in the 1820s.
To battle the epidemics, European powers convened several “International Sanitary Conferences” to understand the latest science on disease as well as pass measures to contain them and prevent them from entering the “civilized world.” The conferences were meant to standardize quarantine requirements after the cholera outbreak of 1829. Between 1851 and 1912, 12 conferences, held in various European capitals, Istanbul and Washington, D.C., brought medical administrators, scientists and government officials together to discuss a coordinated response.
Yet it quickly became clear that colonial rivals like Britain and France were more concerned with maintaining their trading power than working together for global public health. For example, by the 1870s, the international community had reached a consensus that quarantine was the best weapon against the spread of cholera. However, quarantining ships, particularly from India and Egypt, had the potential to slow British trade and affect competition with France.
So British officials refused to put quarantines in practice, opting instead to focus solely on sanitation. The problem? According to historian Stephanie Boyle, this solution was rooted in an old science derived from the outdated “miasma theory,” which argued that diseases were caused by pollution or “bad air.” British denial of contagion theory obstructed international quarantine efforts and caused innumerable deaths, with British-controlled India most devastated by these policies. By knowingly ignoring scientific protocols, Britain was directly responsible for the preventable deaths of its colonial subjects.