School of Policy Studies

School of Policy Studies
School of Policy Studies

Queen's Contagion Cultures Lecture Series

Tuesday November 3, 2020  

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Racism, Scapegoating, and Blame in the History of Epidemics

Jenna Healey
Assistant Professor and Jason A. Hannah Chair

When President Donald Trump refers to Covid-19 as the “Wuhan Virus” or the “kung flu,” he is participating in a long historical tradition of blaming foreigners or racialized groups for the outbreak of disease. This talk will examine the politics of blame by providing several historical examples of medical scapegoating, critiquing the ways in which racism and xenophobia have shaped public health responses to epidemic disease. Targeted groups have faced discrimination and violence, while racist ideas about what bodies are most likely to be ‘dangerous’ have led to the implementation of ineffective public health policies that further exacerbate epidemic threats. In the 1830s, for example, quarantine practices in Quebec targeting Irish immigrants led to increased disease and suffering, while in the late nineteenth century the rights of Chinese residents on the West Coast of Canada and the United States were repeatedly violated in an attempt to control outbreaks of the bubonic plague. The talk will conclude with a reflection on the ways in which the politics of blame in the Covid-19 epidemic has undermined effective policy and further exacerbated the impact of the epidemic on vulnerable populations.