With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Coronavirus spurs prejudice. History suggests that’s no surprise.


To historians and public health researchers, the racialized responses to the emerging coronavirus are nothing new. From 14th century plague to HIV/AIDS and the recent round of Ebola, infectious disease outbreaks have often coincided with surges of prejudice and marginalization. "[It] strikes me as extraordinary," said Frank Snowden, an emeritus professor of history at Yale University, "that we seem unwilling to learn the lessons of the past."

Weeks since the coronavirus first appeared, it's still unclear how far the new virus will spread and to what heights anti-Asian sentiment will spike. But as historians and researchers look back at past outbreaks, they say that the recurrence of stigma not only fails minority communities but also risks exacerbating outbreaks as people weigh stigma with seeking treatment.

"If the message is really about fear and panic and social distancing, then you end up isolating people," said Nayan Shah, an American studies professor at the University of Southern California. Such isolation can scare people off from coming forward and seeking care, Shah added, while others may decide not to seek treatment because they feel as though their symptoms don't "align with the racial or sexual body type that they have."

In the 14th century, Europe had descended into chaos. In a six-year span, a disease — marked by swollen lymph nodes in the armpit, groin, or neck — as much as halved Europe's population. At the time, Jewish people were scapegoated for the pestilence: One incident in present-day France saw 1,000 Jews burned alive after the group was accused of poisoning wells.

Read entire article at Undark