Scapegoating Immigrants During Disease Outbreaks Has a Long History

As reports of attacks on Asian Americans rise, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued language guidelines.

By Charu Raman
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The World Health Organization says terms like “Chinese virus” can unfairly stigmatize Asian Americans in a time of Covid-19. Scapegoating immigrants during disease outbreaks, from malaria to smallpox to leprosy, has a long history.

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Two men in San Francisco dissecting rats nailed to shingles. Source: Centers for Disease Control

Scapegoating was apparent in 1900 during an outbreak of bubonic plague in San Francisco. The disease was carried throughout the city by rats.

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Chinatown, San Francisco. Source: Library of Congress

But officials quarantined only the residents of Chinatown, who were unfairly blamed for starting the outbreak. The quarantine was lifted after a court ruled that it had been imposed with an “evil eye and unequal hand.”

Today, with reports of physical and verbal attacks against Asian Americans rising, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines clarifying that people of Asian descent are not at greater risk of spreading the coronavirus than other Americans.

This video was created with support from a Brown Institute for Media Innovation grant recognizing a need for accurate information about the COVID-19 virus.

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