… Plague is Always Foreign
Wherever you were from, syphilis came from somewhere else, which you can tell from the various names of the disease. The French liked to call it either the “Neapolitan disease,” given the locale of apparent origin, or the “Spanish disease,” blaming it on their own foreign mercenaries.
Italians preferred “morbus Gallicus,” or the “French disease,” since it appeared to have arrived with the French military host (despite it being constituted of a number of peoples, including Italians). The Germans followed suit, naming it the “French evil.” The Scots went with “grandgore,” derived from French terminology. Meanwhile, the Russians named it the “Polish disease,” while the Polish and Persians preferred the “Turkish disease.”
The Turks called it the “Christian disease,” the Tahitians called it the “British disease,” the Indians had the “Portuguese disease,” and the Japanese blamed the “Chinese pox” on the, uh, Chinese.
— Italian Renaissance Zombies, a brief history of syphilis
2020, the Year of Covid-19. The twenty-first century is well under way, and yet responses to the threat of a highly-contagious illness don’t change much over the ages. Human beings are strongly wired to believe that disease (and all other Bad Stuff) comes from Outside, from the Other. During the most spectacular plague in European history, the Black Death, a not uncommon response was to blame the Jews — and expel or kill them.
Fear of the Other is often articulated using the language of disease, and fear of disease expressed in the language of xenophobia. The two are so deeply blended in us at gut-level that the association is reflexive and rarely questioned. We often refer to social behaviours that frighten us as “a disease” in our “body politic.” People who are highly germophobic (obsessive about the risk of disease and anxious about “contamination” in the world around them) are more likely to be xenophobic and/or authoritarian in their politics.
US President Donald Trump, for example, notoriously blamed “Mexicans” and immigrants from South America for bringing “drugs, crime, and rapists” into the United States (as if those ills were somehow unknown to Anglo-American culture). His solution: build a wall to isolate the US from the social diseases which he ascribed to foreigners… build a wall to fence Purity in, and Contamination out.
There’s an entire branch of study called Disgust Psychology. It finds that gut-level revulsion or disgust — very similar to the disgust we feel at encountering rotten food or the smells of death and disease — strongly affects people’s social behaviours and beliefs. Much patriarchal mistreatment of women over the ages stems from a strong disgust reaction to the “messiness” of women’s reproductive processes and the “uncleanliness” of blood. Rigid caste strictures are also disgust-based: it is not for nothing that the lowest caste in traditional India is called “Untouchable” — higher caste people feel contaminated if they touch such a person. Regardless of the specific in-group feeling it, or the out-group they are feeling it about, high-status ethnicities around the world often refer to low-status ethnicities as “dirty,” and even insist that they “smell bad.”
Fear, disgust, xenophobia, Othering — they are all related, in a tight cluster somewhere in our guts and brains. And this means that our fear and anxiety over the Covid-19 pandemic push a lot of buttons. Some of them are big red buttons, and they make me nervous.
Stay Home and Raise the Drawbridge?
The “stay home!” directives issued by various national governments do make sense — the now-famous curve-flattening strategy — given their slowness to respond initially and lack of aggressive testing. South Korea notably did not have to impose “lockdown” on its population, yet succeeded in slowing the transmission rate to a manageable level by very rapid and competent deployment of test kits and contact tracing. However, most other countries did not hit the ground running, and have resorted to the “self-isolation and social-distancing” tactic as next best.
I’m not advocating that people ignore or resist this tactic, as it may be the best tool we have under the circumstances. But I would like to point out that these directives are unfortunately fated to press some of the buttons I’ve been talking about above. Essentially, whole populations have been instructed by credible authorities to put their faith in maintaining purity within their own tiny walled enclosures — avoiding contact with other people, treating all strangers (and even friends) as possible vectors of infection. Unsurprisingly, triggering this fear/disgust/avoidance reaction also triggers related patterns of xenophobia, including Othering and blaming.
Those with pre-existing racial biases have predictably shown a tendency to project blame for Covid-19 onto ethnic groups other than their own, in keeping with the historical examples above. The obvious immediate target was China and the Chinese diaspora. However, other prejudices were also tickled. Some people with pre-existing fear of cell phone transmission towers have already leapt to the conclusion that cell towers are the cause of Covid-19— and some towers have been attacked and burnt.
Humans don’t like randomness — we are pattern-seeking animals — and it’s easy to blame who or whatever we don’t like for the pandemic unfolding around us. We can get nasty about it.
On the Local Scale
I live on a small island with a very small population (almost all of it Anglo-descended). Being remote and sparsely populated, we have lots of fresh clean air and very few of us live in crowded conditions (unlike city apartment dwellers). Being Canadian, we have a national health care system and a (relatively) competent government. In short, we’re lucky; compared to billions, we have less reason to fear or despair. We’re about as “safe” as anyone can be during a novel pandemic.
Nevertheless, both panic and a model-railroad version of xenophobia are in the air here. I’d like to recap some of the suggestions that have been made by community members in recent days — naming no names and assigning no shame, because people are deeply scared and these responses are so hard-wired into us.
- No one should be allowed to come back to the island except full-time residents. No summer people!
- Well, maybe property owners should be allowed to come here, but no one else!
- Anyone who leaves the island, even to go to the nearest town for supplies, should self-isolate for another 14 days when they get back.
- Contractors from “outside” should not be allowed on the island.
Suggestions 1 and 2 establish two categories of “citizenship” — people who are “real” islanders and have a “right” to be here, and people who are not as real and have no right. (Given that all us Anglos here are living on unceded First Nations territory, I find the assertion of “rights” in property ownership a little puzzling, but there it is.) A category of “Other” has been defined, and if we just exclude the Other, we will be safe.
Similar reasoning, of course, was used (just to pick a very few examples) to intern Japanese people during WWII, to defend whites-only housing developments, and to justify proposals to expel all Muslims from the US immediately after 9/11/2001. “Circle the wagons and get rid of all strangers” is a classic human response to any threat; unfortunately, it’s also incompatible with constitutional rights and democratic norms.
Suggestion 3 establishes the Outside (the neighbouring islands, the modest-size city two ferries away, the ferries themselves) as the realm of the Impure or Contaminated, and our little island as the Zone of Purity which must be rigorously defended. This belief in the Zone of Purity seldom passes a common-sense test.
Local residents have been returning from winter vacations (involving air travel, airports, hotels etc.) from at least November 2019 through the present. The Wuhan cluster was documented on December 21st, and global travel restrictions were not imposed until about two months later. Iceland’s recent test results reveal that as much as 25% of their infected population may show no symptoms. This suggests to me that the Wuhan cluster might have started even earlier, before symptomatic individuals were treated and eventually diagnosed.
Political and bureaucratic delays, plus the natural inertia of large systems, meant that passenger travel continued worldwide for at least 60 days after the outbreak began. At 4 billion trips per annum, pretty close to 11 million trips per diem, that’s 660 million passenger trips. Plenty of chances for a clever new virus to hitch rides all over the world.
My point here is not utter despair (though I do suspect that the exposure and infection rate is higher than we currently can prove), but merely that local people (people inside the Us-Zone) may well have been exposed quite some time ago, while travelling. They may have come innocently home before the full picture was acknowledged, before isolation was imposed, before everyone got on the bandwagon, before anyone knew — other than some scientists struggling with some bureaucrats in Wuhan. So in my mind, there has never been any reason to assume that “our island” is in fact a Zone of Purity, in contrast to the rest of the world as a Zone of Contamination. If we should decontaminate for 14 days after a trip to the neighbouring island, surely we should do the same after a trip to the post office.
The same objection applies to Suggestion 4. If we implicitly trust our neighbours (some of whom are most likely exposed and asymptomatic) to wash their hands, stand 6 feet from us, and so on — then why would we not trust “neighbours” from the next island, or the one after that? After all, we’re all Canadians. Again, I think we’re returning to a very deep human — maybe even pre-human — reflex that insists Danger=Other. And for some of us, Other means “off-island.”
I did not hear (maybe I missed it) any suggestion that our own contractors should not travel to neighbouring islands for work, and this omission tends to confirm my theory that the objection to contractors on ferries is part of an unquestioned assumption of local purity vs remote contamination. [Update: while still editing this overly long piece, I heard a fairly reputable rumour that the first Covid-19 cases have been diagnosed on the island, maybe four of them. So much for the Zone of Purity.]
I have been waiting for someone to suggest that a roadblock should be erected between the two main villages on our island, to protect the people of one from the people of the other. So far no one has suggested this, so at present the shores of the island seem to define the boundaries of Us-ness for most residents. While on the one hand, people are reciting the mantra “We’re all in this together,” on the other hand they seem unnervingly eager to raise that drawbridge, believing Us to be “clean” and Them to be “dirty”.
Mark Knopfler’s melancholy lyric appears to be all too true: We haven’t changed since ancient times.
In Part 2 I’ll consider some of the further developments of Us vs Them in drawbridge or barricade situations: paranoia, internal suspicion, self-righteousness, and blame. I suggest that these tendencies can and should be resisted.