Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Epidemics and the ‘other’

A scholarly consensus persists: across time, from the Plague of Athens to AIDS, epidemics provoke hate and blame of the ‘other’. As the Danish-German statesman and ancient historian, Barthold Georg Niebuhr proclaimed in 1816: “Times of plague are always those in which the bestial and diabolical side of human nature gains the upper hand.” In the 1950s, the French historian René Baehrel reasoned: epidemics induce ‘class hatred (La haine de classe)’; such emotions have been and are a part of our ‘structures mentales … constantes psychologiques’. With the rise of AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s, this chorus resounded. According to Carlo Ginzburg, ‘great pestilences intensified the search for a scapegoat on which fears, hatreds and tension … could be discharged’. For Dorothy Nelkin and Sander Gilman, ‘Blaming has always been a means to make mysterious and devastating diseases comprehensible’. Roy Porter concurred with Susan Sontag: ‘deadly diseases’, especially when ‘there is no cure to hand … spawn sinister connotations’. More recently from earthquake wrecked, cholera-hit Haiti, Paul Farmer concluded: ‘Blame was, after all, a calling card of all transnational epidemics.’ Others can easily be added. The problem is: these scholars have produced only a handful of examples—sometimes, the Black Death in 1348-51 and the burning of Jews; sometimes, the rise of Malfrancese (or Syphilis) at the end of the fifteenth century; sometimes, cholera riots in the nineteenth century; and AIDS in the 1980s (but usually from the U.S. alone).

The collection and analysis of socio-psychological reactions to epidemic diseases taken from a wide range of sources from antiquity to the present tell a different story: few epidemics spurred hatred, social violence, or blame. Instead, before the 19th century, when epidemic diseases rarely possessed effective cures and all plagues were more or less medically mysterious, outbreaks of epidemics tended instead to elicit compassion and self-sacrifice that dissolved class and factional conflicts.

The Black Death of 1347-51 was a striking exception. With successive waves of plague in the later Middle Ages and Renaissance, however, the mass terror against Jews or any other minorities was not repeated.  As early as 1530 and into the seventeenth century, accusations of intentional plague spreading (‘engraisseurs’ in France; ‘untori’ in Italy) emerged, but the numbers accused or executed never approached anything near the levels of 1348-51. Moreover, these accusations did not target marginal populations as is often supposed; instead, the trial records of the best-studied case, that of Milan’s plague in 1630, show the accused as ‘insiders’, beginning with solid native-born skilled artisans and ending with bankers and even the son of one of the most important military leaders of the city.

With the spread of cholera across Europe from 1830 to 1837, epidemics’ social toxins became more widespread and virulent. This explosion of hate and blame, however, again did not target the ‘other’. Rather, it was a class struggle, whose hate flowed in the opposite direction. Across radically different social and political regimes from Czarist Russia to Liberal Manchester, impoverished and marginal groups such as newly-arrived Asiatic Sarts at Tashkent or impoverished Irish Catholic immigrants in English cities formed crowds as large as 10,000 to destroy hospitals and attack health workers accused of poisoning and concocting a new disease to cull populations of the poor. These riots did not end with cholera’s first major European tour of the 1830s, when the disease was new and mysterious. In Italy, they persisted to the sixth cholera wave in 1910-11, long after its pathogenic agent and preventive measures had been discovered.

Smallpox was the disease par excellence of hate in the United States, and its social toxins burst forth with epidemics from the 1880s to the second decade of the twentieth century, well after this disease had scored its highest moralities and at the very moment of the laboratory revolution’s sprint in medical breakthroughs. Again, suspicion and hate spread along class lines, but now hate’s dance switched partners.

Cholera was not the only disease to spawn hate and violence into the 20th century. Smallpox was the disease par excellence of hate in the United States, and its social toxins burst forth with epidemics from the 1880s to the second decade of the twentieth century, well after this disease had scored its highest moralities and at the very moment of the laboratory revolution’s sprint in medical breakthroughs. Again, suspicion and hate spread along class lines, but now hate’s dance switched partners. Property holders from farmers to merchants comprised ‘the mobs’, while the victims were among the marginal—‘tramps’, ‘negroes’, Bohemians, and the ‘Chinese’.

Certainly, not all epidemics of modernity divided populations. The deadliest of pandemics in US history, yellow fever, in cities such as Philadelphia in 1793, New Orleans in 1853 and Memphis in 1878-9, brought blacks and whites together in mutual support and respect and saw contributions and volunteers pour across the Mason-Dixon line, creating martyrs to the plague, eulogized in newspapers and commemorated in works of poetry, paintings, and sculpture. Moreover, despite its monumental mortalities, mysteriousness of symptoms, quickness of death, peculiar age structure of its victims, and extraordinary contagion, the Great Influenza of 1918-20 failed to ignite hatred of victims, attacks on health workers, or blame of ‘others’. Instead, massive waves of volunteers, especially women, risked their lives, eagerly crossing state and international borders and reaching across class and ethnic barriers. El Paso, October 1918, is a case in point. Against the rising tide of anti-Mexican sentiment, the growth of the Ku Klux Klan, and nationalist fervour brewed by the Great War, debutants, middle-class ladies along with those from the labouring classes delivered food, swept floors, cared for children, and nursed the dangerously ill in El Paso’s worst-hit Mexican neighbourhoods.

The rich tapestry of epidemics’ social side effects challenges the one-dimensional, trans-historical consensus. Why did Ebola recently provoke violence against clinics and health workers in West Africa? What characteristics of epidemic diseases are more likely to spark hatred and blame? Certainly, rates of lethality are far more important than rates of mortality. But a mix of other factors, such as disgust and the quickness of death, along with prevailing social and cultural conditions must be considered. But the diseases themselves also mattered: just as different diseases affect our bodies differently, so too they have affected differently our collective mentalities.

Featured image: ‘The Triumph of Death’. Painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, c.1562. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

There are currently no comments.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *