Bubonic plagues, Spanish Flu and now coronavirus outbreak, humans have always found it easy to blame others for pandemics

Mankind has always found it easy to blame someone or something for an epidemic like coronavirus, sometimes the scapegoat is an animal, a king, a community, a country, a race, or followers of a religion

Hassan M Kamal April 10, 2020 18:17:34 IST
Bubonic plagues, Spanish Flu and now coronavirus outbreak, humans have always found it easy to blame others for pandemics

The coronavirus has infected 6,412 people in India and killed at least 199, and the number is likely to go up as new clusters emerge across the country. While the virus has revealed chinks in the healthcare system of the world's most developed countries, in India, it has exacerbated the Hindu-Muslim divide after a mosque in Delhi's Nizamuddin emerged as one of the several hotspots in the country.

Though the Central government has said that it would no longer classify cases based on location, in one of its briefings last week, the health ministry had Tablighi Jamaat, a religious group whose focus is to reinforce the Muslim way of life among followers of Islam, to be responsible for at least 30 percent of the cases in India.

Bubonic plagues Spanish Flu and now coronavirus outbreak humans have always found it easy to blame others for pandemics

Over 200 people who attended an event in Nizamuddin West have been quarantined. PTI

After the news about the hotspot became public, the Tablighi Jamaat was not only accused of knowingly hiding at their Markaz (centre) in Nizamuddin West, Delhi, to spread the virus, a member of the group who attended a similar event in Bhopal was also beaten up after returning to his home.

Hashtags like “#coronajihad” have been trending on social media while TV news channels reportedly went several steps ahead coining phrases like “Markaz mayhem (Times Now)” “corona bomb (ABP)”, etc.

According to reports, fake videos claiming to show members of the religious group spitting on police and healthcare workers were shared on social media.

Some members of the ruling party such as Babita Phogat reportedly likened the community to “pigs”. The Uttar Pradesh Police even slapped the National Security Act against six Jamaat members because some were reportedly roaming around “semi-nude” in front of female nursing staff and “singing obscene songs, and demanding tobacco and cigarettes”.

Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath, who has been accused of violating the lockdown on 25 March,  called the group “enemy of humanity”.

Social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook are filled with hateful comments, memes and cartoons depicting the community as the “distributor” and China as the “creator” of the virus.

Epidemics and scapegoats

Do ethnic groups, animals, or citizens of a country knowingly go around spreading a disease?

There’s no historical or empirical evidence that could answer the question in positive, but there is a sufficient number of incidents in history that shows that mankind has always found it easy to blame someone or something for an epidemic. Sometimes the scapegoat is an animal, a king, a community, a country, a race, or followers of a religion.

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According to an article in Psychology Today, before the European Plague swept across the region, “the Jews most often took the blame for spreading the Bubonic Plague and were accused of poisoning wells or trying to infect others directly.”

“Many Jews were murdered based solely on rumour and innuendo. Entire villages were wiped out in retaliation,” the article adds.

Till today, ‘The Great Flu Pandemic of 1918-1919’ is still referred to as Spanish Flu even though it didn’t originate there.

“The Spanish got tagged with the killer flu because Spain was the first country to report the disease publicly, not because it originated there,” reports Washington Post.

According to Sciencemag.org, a non-profit organisation which focuses on science journalism, even though swine flu does not transmit by pigs, "some countries banned pork imports or slaughtered pigs after the 2009 outbreak” all because the flu's name appeared to convey that it is spread by pigs.

Once, such a country was Egypt, which ignored the UN's advice and ordered the slaughter of all its 3 to 4 lakh pigs. According to Reuters, the culling of pigs placed the already marginalised Christians at a disadvantage, fuelling sectarian tensions in the mainly Muslim country.

A similar example is that of AIDS, which was previously known as gay-related immune deficiency, and as a result led to the stigmatisation of the LGBT community, which continues even today.

According to UK-based charity avert.org that aims to provide an accurate and trusted information about HIV, “At the beginning of HIV epidemic, gays were singled out in several countries and held responsible for AIDS, promoting homophobia and abusive behaviour towards them”.

This homophobia continues to be a major barrier to ending the global AIDS epidemic even today, the organisation adds.

In the early days, according to the website, newspapers demonised the LGBT community with headlines such as “Alert over ‘gay plague'”, and “'Gay plague’ may lead to blood ban on homosexuals”.

Eerily, some of the headlines used in newspapers and television news channels in India after the Tablighi Jamaat cluster sounded very similar.

COVID-19 stigma

The COVID-19 pandemic seems to show that the despite advances in science and technology, human reaction to life-threatening pandemics, is unlikely to change anytime soon.

Globally, US President Donald Trump has referred to the coronavirus as 'Chinese virus' and US Secretary of State keeps referring to it as “Wuhan Virus”, drawing criticism from China and the WHO.

Since 2015, the WHO has been requesting newspapers, countries and scientists to not link a virus or a disease to a place.

Surprisingly, though China, is playing the victim of stigmatisation by the US, a week before Trump made his “Chinese Virus” remark, according to BBC, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman shared a conspiracy theory, alleging the US Army had brought the virus to the region.

This type of blame game is not new, though.

In fact, though the Spanish had protested against being linked to the Great Flu Pandemic during the World War I, according to a Washington Post report, “Spain also called the virus the ‘French flu’, claiming French visitors to Madrid had brought it”.

The report also cites Kenneth C Davis, as writing that the “Germans called it the Russian Pest” while “the Russians called it the ‘Chinese Flu’”.

The scenario remains the same in India, except that here the blame has evolved from the “Chinese are responsible for it” which saw people discriminating against people from the North East and Indian Chinese community to “Indian elites brought it” after singer Kanika Kapoor tested positive to now “Muslims are spreading it” following the Tablighi Jamaat incident.

Actor and singer Meiyang Chang was recently called 'corona' by two unknown bikers in Mumbai while a Manipuri woman was harassed in Pune.

In Mysuru, Karnataka, two Naga students were allegedly not allowed to enter a supermarket because they “didn't look Indian”. The staff, according to Times of India report, told the police that the “public asked them not to allow these foreigners to enter the
store”.

On Sunday, again, as Indians lit lamps across the country to express their resolve in the fight against coronavirus, some were heard chanting, “China virus, Go back”. It would seem hatred and pandemics go together.

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