Pandemic Borders

Immigrants are not to blame for global epidemics: insights from past and present

That immigrants have been singled out as disease-carriers is not surprising given the long, ugly history of epidemics being associated with migration.

Tahseen Shams
8 June 2020
Emergency hospital during Spanish Influenza epidemic, Camp Funston, Kansas (1918-20)
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Otis Historical Archives, National Museum of Health and Medicine / wikimedia commons. Public Domain
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On April 21st, US President Donald Trump, facing severe criticism for his administration’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, declared a 60-day halt in issuing green cards to purportedly prevent immigration to the United States. While his assault on immigration was clearly intended to invigorate his fanbase for his upcoming reelection campaign, that immigrants have been singled out as disease-carriers is not surprising given the long, ugly history of epidemics being associated with immigrants.

In the 1800s, Irish immigrants were blamed for bringing cholera to the United States, Italians for polio, and Jews for tuberculosis. In the 1900s, Chinese immigrants were similarly accused of spreading bubonic plague. When the influx of Haitian refugees in the 1980s coincided with the AIDS epidemic, Haitians and Africans were blamed for the disease. Today, xenophobia has turned its gaze upon those of Asian descent, who, accused of spreading the coronavirus, face intense prejudice.

Yet, one crucial but overlooked point dismantles these fears about immigrants being active vectors: while human mobility transforms regional human-to-human transmission into global outbreaks, immigrants and refugees are relatively static compared to seasonal travelers. Unlike tourists and business travelers, who travel back and forth across borders on a temporary but regular basis, immigrants and refugees have settled in their adopted countries fairly permanently. Their often-limited resources prohibit frequent travel. In contrast, cruise ships sailing for weeks despite having infected people on board helped carry the coronavirus around the globe, contributing to the mounting toll of cases and deaths. And the return of hundreds of thousands of Canadian snowbirds to Canada after wintering in Florida, a COVID-19 epicenter, raised fears among health officials about an increase of infected cases in the country.

Right-wing advocates use pandemics and other disruptions to the international order (like terror attacks) as evidence of the dangers of immigration

Despite being a far less mobile population, immigrants never seem to be able to leave behind the mantle of “foreigner.” Right-wing advocates, based on little but poorly-disguised racism, use pandemics and other disruptions to the international order (like terror attacks) as evidence of the dangers of immigration. Their narratives disregard that immigrants overwhelmingly make up a country’s essential workforce. Such fear-mongering escalates xenophobia already percolating in society. Popular media and political discourse link immigrants to dangers unfolding in faraway lands, highlighting the “foreign-ness” of immigrants and their descendants. Immigrants consequently become depicted as internal threats. This holds true even when immigrants are not from or have never visited the places where the threats originate (I expound on this subject in my book Here, There, and Elsewhere: The Making of Immigrant Identities in a Globalized World).

Many segments of the American public blamed Latinos for Zika, and African immigrants for Ebola, regardless of which South American or African countries the immigrants came from. Today, the COVID-19 crisis, having originated in China, is feeding into pre-existing anti-Chinese racism. This is despite the fact that the virus that led to the outbreak in New York, which has the largest U.S. death toll, came from Europe. Hate-crimes against those perceived as Chinese has similarly risen in Canada.

While limiting people’s mobility is a necessary epidemiological measure to stop transmission, singling out non-citizens through travel bans is not

Even governments are not immune to xenophobia. Many governments’ knee-jerk reaction to epidemics is to close borders to non-citizens. While limiting people’s mobility is a necessary epidemiological measure to stop transmission, singling out non-citizens through travel bans is not. Citizens are equally likely to be virus-carriers as non-citizens. But states’ obligation to protect their citizens outweigh epidemiological facts - facts which tell us that travel restrictions often do more harm than good because they prevent doctors and medical help from reaching affected areas. Bans also cause infected people to preemptively flee, causing further spread. This exacerbated the COVID-19 crisis in China, and more destructively, in Italy. Moreover, international travel restrictions delay outbreaks very modestly: in China, bans delayed the outbreak by just 3-5 days, and elsewhere in the world, by approximately two weeks, most transmissions occurring internally.

Despite faring better than other western countries, Canada has also shut its borders to non-citizens and asylum-seekers. But Canada’s own history reveals a more just and effective response: during SARS, Canada did not close borders but introduced various screening measures for international travelers. Widespread testing is undoubtedly the way to contain COVID-19 fairly and effectively. Early detection through testing, hand washing, self-isolation, and household quarantine are far more effective in mitigating pandemics than travel restrictions.

COVID-19 has brought many societal tensions into sharp relief. The global disparity between rich and poor nations; the gaping divide between the haves and have-nots even in the world’s most powerful country; the oscillation of power between populism and the political establishment; Islamophobia and other forms of xenophobia are but some examples. However, we also have before us numerous opportunities: as scholars, to take stock of what we know and find new directions for research; and as citizens and nationals, to reach out in transnational solidarity. The path forward is yet uncharted. The question is, where do we go from here?

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