A Fear of Disease, or a Disease of Fear? (#3)

As you know, we are currently experiencing a global pandemic due to the emergence of the novel coronavirus, Covid-19. (If you haven’t heard, you’re probably living under a rock. In which case, stay under your rock because we’re supposed to be self-isolating) This virus has completely taken over the world on such an epic scale that it’s all anyone is talking about. Hell, it’s so serious that sports are canceled. Now when you turn on Get Up or SportsCenter, all sports reporters are discussing is which athletes have coronavirus. It’s utterly boring.
Men everywhere (and some women too) are sitting at home in isolation with absolutely no idea of what to do with themselves. So desperate for entertainment and competition, some have taken to juggling toilet paper with their knees and feet. Which, during a time when toilet paper is really hard to come by, this new fad seems like an excellent idea. During this pandemic there is much uncertainty. And, unfortunately, this uncertainty has harbored another big issue: fear.
Xenophobia is not a new term, nor is it a new issue. We, as humans, have encountered and portrayed xenophobic behaviors throughout much of our history. It’s almost as if xenophobia has become a pandemic itself. One that we are not recognizing or treating.

Xenophobia: What is it?

Most simply, xenophobia refers to a fear of people. More specifically, it targets people that are different than you. This is a term not to be confused with racism, as xenophobia is much more broad. It can refer to race, but also to culture, belief system, political viewpoint, social class, etc. How is it that fear causes hateful behavior and attitudes? Is it in our nature as humans to label those who are different from ourselves as a threat? If history has taught us anything, fearing people who are different than us leads to a vicious cycle of distrust and hate that inevitably weakens us as individuals and as a society much like a disease.

If labeling someone as “different” is that initial inoculation of this disease, then our immune system is going to immediately respond to this as a threat. So, when “different” becomes a threat, a sense of distrust (or fear) forms within us.
This would be the equivalent to a disease in its latent form. It’s within us, but it is concealed and dormant until it is triggered. So what is the trigger that causes this disease to awaken and become harmful (or virulent) to our bodies and minds? Hatred.

Xenophobia: A historical look

In the 17th century, English settlers began swarming the lands of North America in search of freedom from religious persecution and new opportunities. They brought with them hope for the future, weapons, spices like sugar and pepper, and plants like garlic and lettuce. They also brought smallpox, influenza, yellow fever, and rats. This presented a major problem for the Native Americans as they had never encountered these diseases before, therefore, they had no immunity to them. Suddenly, tribes were being wiped out from disease. Some scientists theorize that a great majority of these deaths are attributed to Leptospirosis, a bacterial disease spread through urine from black rats that were common to England who were aboard every English ship that washed ashore.

            This mortality brought with it another problem: xenophobia. This led to fear and hatred on both sides. The Native Americans’ fear of disease from abroad became the rationale for fearing the foreign-born, and the English were stigmatized as carriers of disease. On the other side, Native Americans were defined by their differences in behavior, dress, and culture rather than by their differences in environment. This led to tremendous amounts of persecution brought on by the English as the natives were viewed as savages. If you know anything about history, you know this did not end well for the Native Americans.

This xenophobic behavior persisted as we moved into the 18th century with slavery in America and into the 19th century with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in 1866. It was their hope to maintain white supremacy in the post-war South. They acted as a network of violent initiatives, performing heinous crimes against African Americans.
Even after the violence of the KKK was made illegal in 1871, they rose again as the 2nd KKK in the 1920s. This demonstration of xenophobia formed a giant wound on the United States from which we may never fully recover.
Xenophobia tends to rear its ugly head in every century as it resurfaced again in the 20th century with the rise of the Spanish flu in 1918. This led to an overwhelming stigmatization of immigrants. While the earliest cases were identified in Spain, within the US the majority of infected people were Italian immigrants. While there is no known reason for why it infected Italians more than others, it led to a distrust for all immigrant people.
This caused new restrictions to be placed on immigration into the US. Immigrant people, once again, were looked at as disease carriers. This also led to a distrust for German people as it was speculated that the Germans had intentionally spread the flu as a weapon of war in WWI.
Honestly, there are too many instances/demonstrations of xenophobia that have impacted our planet to go into detail on every single one. From the Holocaust, to Rwanda, to human zoos (yes, those were actually a thing people wanted to pay money to go to). It’s become so commonplace that it is exemplified in TV shows, music and movies. Remember in Harry Potter when Draco Malfoy calls Hermione Granger a “filthy little mudblood”? Yes, that is xenophobic.
Now, if only we could respond to every instance of xenophobia Hermione did with a swift punch to his smug little face.

In Times of Crisis, Fear Cultivates Discrimination

In December, 2019 the first case of the novel coronavirus, Covid-19, was discovered in Wuhan China. Since then, it has spread to almost every country in the world leading to a pandemic. Today, there are 131,366 confirmed cases in the United States alone. Just as with previous outbreaks of disease, this instance has also been characterized by feelings of uncertainty, societal, corporate and governmental disruption, and is harboring an overall climate of fear and distrust. Yes, xenophobia has reared its ugly head once again.

All over the world people of Asian descent are being discriminated against and looked at as “disease carriers” or “gross people”. It’s so odd to me. How are people minding their own business on a metro looked at as gross when the xenophobic behavior being projected on to them is deemed as acceptable. There have been many similar stories of xenophobic behavior towards people of Asian descent.

One commonality that irks me is that there are witnesses to these hate crimes. And no one stands up for them. No one has the balls to stand up and tell the jerks yelling xenophobic slurs that it is not Chinese people who are gross, it is your behavior. Fear and xenophobia are intimately linked, but what makes this current pandemic worse is that now social media has been added to this noxious equation.
This has led to rumors, online bulling, and more extreme xenophobic behavior because now people are able to hide behind their computer screens. These behaviors are sustaining the pandemic that is xenophobia creating a vicious cycle of panic, new rumors and tension across the world.

How do we eradicate this disease?

When viruses invade our cells, the cell is looked upon as a factory. The virus uses up the cell’s energy, shuts down the cells normal pathways of acquiring materials and creating new proteins. This leads to changes and damage within our DNA. And it ends with an overall invasion our bodies that inhibit our innate defense systems that allow us to fight off the infection.

Xenophobia attacks us in similar ways. When introduced to fear, our bodies go into a “fight or flight” mode. This initiates certain behavioral responses. In the case of xenophobia, the response is hatred. This hatred then invades our bodies and minds. It competes with the part of us that has compassion and empathy for others until those behaviors become blocked. This could very well lead to changes in our DNA that allow xenophobia to be passed on from generation to generation.

When we contract a virus, our bodies must adjust to the presence of these foreign bodies and produce the antibodies needed to fight them. So, in order to fight xenophobia we need to develop “antibodies” against it. 

We must remind ourselves that we are ALL human. We are ALL in this together. Immigrants are not infectious. Cultural differences cannot be wiped away no matter how much bleach you use. People who are “different” are not foreign invaders attacking our well-being.

Possibly, when we embrace inclusion into our society and personal lives we will create a stronger, healthier, xenophilic world.