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The Colonial Roots of International Disease Management

In their handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, President Trump and his allies are calling plays from an old playbook.

Vincent LaBarca
Jun 7 · 9 min read
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A report from the 1866 International Sanitary Conference regarding “Asiatic Cholera,” also known as, you know, “cholera.” Countway Library of Medicine, Harvard University
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A not-so-subtle magazine cover targeting Chinatown as the source of three ghastly diseases. Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum

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The shrouded specter of cholera floats through the air. National Library of Medicine

Doctors embraced social Darwinism to explain the relationship between humans and disease.

Because diseases like plague were associated with overcrowding and the indigent, Indian families in working-class neighborhoods were forcibly removed from their homes, their possessions burned and floors removed. Anyone with so much as a whiff of fever was isolated, and British officers segregated their relatives in special camps. Hospitals became a source of fear. In his account of the Bombay plague, J.K. Condon wrote:


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Health officials in India searching a house for suspected plague patients.
  • Early Christians found themselves on the receiving end of persecution in the 2nd century. When an outbreak of smallpox rocked the Roman Empire, Roman pagans slaughtered Christians, hoping to put an end to the scourge.
  • A plague outbreak in Cape Town, South Africa resulted in the forced removal of the city’s Black African population to a segregated camp, setting the stage for Apartheid.
  • In Honolulu, the Board of Health burned buildings in Chinatown to slow the spread of plague, resulting in a fire that blazed for seventeen days and displaced thousands of Asian immigrants.
  • AIDS appeared to be very selective of its victims, preying on those whom many considered immoral — gay men, addicts, prostitutes. The disease was seen as divine retribution, a punishment for sinful behavior.

History is not on democracy’s side.

President Trump has taken to calling coronavirus the “Chinese virus” while citing disease outbreak as justification for harsh border control policies. The Secretary of State blames the Chinese government for releasing the virus from a lab. Several European countries have closed their borders in pursuit of isolationism. In Italy, Alessandra Mussolini (yes, that Mussolini) refers to the virus as the “Wuhan virus” and trades in conspiracy theories. Researchers have found that as anxiety about the pandemic increases, so does the appeal of nationalist and authoritarian ideals.

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Close up of President Trump’s very presidential speech notes with “Corona” replaced by “Chinese.” Jabin Botsford, The Washington Post

Vincent LaBarca

Written by

Nurse practitioner | Dog spoiler | Writer of history, medicine, and culture

Vincent LaBarca

Written by

Nurse practitioner | Dog spoiler | Writer of history, medicine, and culture

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