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Sat 30 May 2020
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With the Coronavirus the subject of headlines the world over, fears of a pandemic have again arisen. Along with media speculation, however, there is a far more insidious contagion.

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In both the UK and Australia, Chinese groups have raised concerns about anti-Chinese hatred and discrimination taking root, particularly via social media. On far-right message boards, the Wuhan Coronavirus is being described as some kind of retribution for so-called “degenerate” ways.

It is an alarming situation, but it is by no means new. Throughout history, disease and fears of disease have been closely linked to scapegoated minorities.

Perhaps the most significant and well-documented example of this came with the arrival of the Black Death.

As the disease spread across Europe from the south-east, a series of persecutions targeted Jewish populations. Subject to pogroms for a number of centuries prior, raging outbreaks were said to be caused by Jews poisoning wells or somehow or another adultering supplies of food and water. Said to be responsible for the death of Jesus, it was thought that the Jews continued to target Gentiles more than a thousand years later.

Violence was frequent and bloody. Even before the plague reached some cities, particularly in southern France and Germany, the Jewish population was rounded up from ghettos, massacred or burned alive. Between 1348 and 1351, hundreds of cities and towns throughout Europe murdered thousands of Jews, with more fleeing to regions with a more tolerant attitude. 

Fears of the pestilence did not stop the persecutors of Jews from taking their wealth following pogroms. 

Bigotry linked to the spread of disease is hardly confined to the medieval period either.

As an Australian, I’ve long been familiar with the huge body of anti-Chinese propaganda and rhetoric that existed at the turn of the century.

A depiction of Jews being burned to death in Strasbourg in 1349 during the Black Death

Again, while Chinese migrants to Australia had been persecuted for decades prior, outbreaks of Yellow Fever, Typhus, Typhoid and Diptheria were closely linked to the new arrivals. 

With a strong print media at the time, and periodicals such as The Bulletin being read across a broad middle-class, articles and cartoons repeatedly targeted the Chinese. The new arrivals, who had come to work on the Goldfields, were portrayed as the primary vector for diseases arriving to Australia. An 1888 cartoon for the Queensland Figaro depicts diseases being brought into communities through the cramped and unhygienic quarters that most Chinese people were forced to live in. 

Such cartoons can be said to be responsible for the heavy-handed, punitive ‘White Australia’ policy put in place at the dawn of the 20th Century and, to an extent, the arrival of Australia as an independent nation – effective immigration controls were impossible without federation. 

On the ground, anti-Chinese violence was common. Riots and attacks against the community increased from the sporadic outbreaks following the Gold Rush.

The effect this bigoted, anti-Chinese rhetoric had on their communities across Australia is only now recognised, more than a century later.

Diseases come and go – they are cured or burn themselves out. Yet, what has persisted over the centuries is a repeated tendency to attack, shame and humiliate outsiders as somehow responsible for the suffering. It is never so simple as this. 

Nothing seems to change. The internet is once again full of conspiracy theories and ‘news sources’ blaming the Chinese for the Coronavirus.

Fear is a contagion that will outlast any bacteria or virus.


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