Comment: Politicians, not migrants, behind pandemic spread

Using migrants as scapegoats for covid’s spread echoes a practice that began in the 19th century.

By Randa Tawil / Special To The Washington Post

Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis 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 in both states.

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. Abbott 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 such as 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.

While allowing international trade to continue unabated, Britain, France and other colonial powers blamed the persistent spread of cholera on migrants. The powers accused Indian and Middle Eastern people of spreading the disease by traveling on religious pilgrimages across the Indian Ocean and then into Europe by way of Egypt. They blamed the “filth, bad food, unwholesome beverages, vicious excitement, debauchery and shockingly tainted atmosphere” of the holy festivals and pilgrimages.

The idea that Muslims spread cholera became so common that even the New York Times commented in 1893 that “dirty pilgrims brought the germs of disease to continually menace the health of Europe and the entire civilized world.” The newspaper recommended European powers work together to stop the travel of migrants so that “the most terrible plague of modern history can be confined to the country where it was born, where it is always to be found, and where the most sanguine sanitarian cannot hope it will be stamped out in the next hundred years.” By blaming travelers, particularly those from the colonized world, public attention shifted from enforcing the best public-health measures to containing the movement of Muslim migrants.

The rhetoric had consequences. The European Sanitary Conferences then created quarantine laws specifically for Muslims and people from the Middle East. While companies like the French shipping line Messagerie Maritimes and the British East India Co. faced little regulation, migrants on those ships faced harsh policing.

For example, British shipping companies profited from Muslim passengers’ trips to Mecca for the hajj. On arrival the ships were not delayed through sanitation measures; but the pilgrims were. They were forcibly disinfected, and, if officials perceived them to be “indigent,” they were turned away from the pilgrimage, often leaving them stranded in ports. Britain ran the sanitation stations as cheaply as possible, and many pilgrims and migrants fell ill by traveling through them.

Shipping also made up a large part of the French economy and in ports like Marseille, the city was also dependent on migrants traveling from Europe and the Middle East to the Americas. However, companies like Messagerie Maritimes avoided quarantining ships and goods, while city officials forced Syrian migrants into a two-week quarantine at their own expense; leaving many penniless at the end of it. In 1896, the mayor of Marseille even tried to pass a law to delineate treatment of migrants based on ethnicity as a means of discouraging entry from those who traveled through the Egyptian port of Alexandria, which was associated with cholera.

While in the city, French police heavily surveilled Syrians. While there was no evidence that the group carried higher rates of cholera, they were easy scapegoats for the lack of proper sanitation by shipping companies unwilling to lose profits by staying docked at ports. And like the British, French officials cut corners on their sanitation methods. Many migrants became sick in quarantine, thus spreading disease through the mechanism that was created to stop it. By focusing on the supposed cultural and racial characteristics of Asian and Middle Eastern people as the reason for cholera, these powers maintained their trading routes and heightened migrant policing.

We often think about plagues and pandemics of the past as “natural” disasters, fueled by the lack of scientific understanding of disease. But the answers were known then, as they are for us now. A desire for business to be “back to normal” took precedent over people’s safety. Moreover, migrants and marginalized people were used effectively as scapegoats, resulting in increased policing and migration restriction. Particularly now, as the arrivals of Afghan refugees are sure to provoke calls for immigration restriction, immigrants should not take the fall for bad policy. The sources of our troubles are right in front of us, not at our borders.

Randa Tawil is an assistant professor of women and gender studies at Texas Christian University. She researches the intersections of race, gender and migration from the Middle East to the Americas.

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