EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece is published in partnership with our friends at the Poynter Institute.
It’s happening again, as it always happens with disease. Our fear of contagion has turned some among the sick, the potentially sick, and even those who care for the sick into convenient scapegoats.
At a time when health care workers are celebrated as heroes for their sacrifice and sense of duty, some in scattered places around the globe are being attacked. According to NPR, when they show up in a community, they are chased away, under the threat of violence, in fear that they are not healers but carriers.
New Zealand scholar Brian Boyd offers a cogent theory about stories. He argues in “On the Origin of Stories” that stories are essential to our survival. Fiction and nonfiction both expand our experience and leave us with two enhanced powers: 1) to recognize danger so we can avoid it; 2) to identify the helpers so we can work with them.
It is clear how we might filter the story of the COVID-19 pandemic through Boyd’s theory. We have stories galore telling us how the coronavirus works and the steps needed to protect ourselves and others. (Wash your hands, don’t touch your face, wear a face mask, stay six feet apart.)
And we have countless narratives portraying heroes in action, not just those stepping into direct contact with the ill and dying, but also the store clerks, truck drivers, and mail carriers who, until now, have been under-appreciated.
From this frame we can derive a simple protocol for journalists and other public writers and speakers: Help us understand the dangers. Help us understand who can help us, and how we can help.
But Boyd’s compelling ideas do not account for those who use stories and the tools of narratives for bad purposes. Stories that characterize the sick, disabled, and infirm as dangerous to the common good are dangerous in and of themselves. They have a long history in real-life narratives and fiction. Consider the stories the Nazis told to glorify themselves and villainize others; those stories helped lead to what we now call the Holocaust.
We will get back to COVID-19, but let’s spend a little time with zombies.
Living on zombie time
COVID-19 has given us a real-life narrative to help make sense of the countless zombies who, over the last decade, have become sci-fi anti-heroes. Zombie movies are not just of this century. Filmmaker George Romero set the standard in my day (1968) with “Night of the Living Dead.” Since then, the zombies have multiplied exponentially.
In 2010 a comic book inspired TV’s popular “The Walking Dead.” Max Brooks, son of Mel, wrote the novel “World War Z,” which starred Brad Pitt in the movie version. “Game of Thrones,” with its knights and dragons, offered us the White Walkers, as medieval zombies — and frozen ones to boot.
The basic narrative is familiar: Some force, often a virus, has turned the living into the walking dead. They feed on human flesh. If they bite you, you are transformed into a zombie as well.
It is in that trope that zombies become embodied metaphors for disease. They are infected, they multiply, they make their way through communities, they attack, they are contagious. To eliminate them, you must burn them, shoot them in the head, or decapitate them. In most cases, the living can recognize them from a distance, offering a chance for fight or flight. A small advantage.
There are other stories in which even that advantage does not exist. Take the recent HBO Stephen King adaptation called “The Outsider.” This series, based on King’s novel, describes an evil presence in the world that — in human form — feeds on children. The problem is that the evil will inhabit the body of an ordinary person, usually someone who has been scratched or wounded by a carrier. That infected person becomes a doppelgänger for the innocent original source, who is mistaken for the killer.
In simple terms, the premise is that human beings are infected by evil and become monsters.
In some movies — I’m thinking of versions of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” — characters can look at an ordinary person walking down the street and wonder “Is he one of US, or one of THEM?”
We are fighting a war against an invisible enemy, our leaders tell us about the current pandemic. One expert referred to the virus as an “invisible monster.” If that is the case, it makes everyone is potential suspect.
Need for a scapegoat
All these creepy narratives have corresponding versions in actual diseases. Sad to say, a dark part of human nature tempts us to demonize those with illness, especially those thought to be contagious. The infected come to be seen as evil. This is inevitable and infectious in its own way.
Irrational fears of contagion have a long history of side effects: shunning, casting out, scapegoating, panic, xenophobia, racism, intolerance, demonizing, tribal isolation, building barriers, misinformation, conspiracy theories, excommunication, violence, and even murder.
In the case of COVID-19, Let’s start with China.
President Trump and others in his administration have referred to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus.” A very bad joke calls it the “Kung flu.” The source of the contagion has reportedly been traced to live animal “wet markets” in the Wuhan region of China, where the virus was transmitted from animals — in this case bats — to humans. (Of course, it had to be bats.)
Recent reports suggests the virus may have come to America from Europe, not China. Pinning a global pandemic on one country — such as China — defies science and practical policy. By all means, if public health measures, sanitation, or food safety have to be enforced in any country, and if live animal markets anywhere need to be shut down, let’s get to it.
But here is how the contagion of irrationality works. Someone blames it on China. By extension, the blame extends to the Chinese people. In a diverse country like America, blame — by pure ignorance — is extended to Chinese Americans (many who have never been in China); and because the ignorant do not discriminate between the varieties of Asian cultures, blame extends to all Asian Americans. Suddenly people are jumping out of the way of Asian Americans walking down the street, or boycotting restaurants, or bullying children, or yelling racist remarks, or vandalizing homes and businesses.
Such a response is predictable. It has a long history in America and Europe and a name that some many find offensive. It is called the “yellow peril.” It goes back well into the 19th century when male Chinese workers were recruited to the West Coast of America to help build the railroads. America is good at this, bringing in cheap labor to do backbreaking work, with the hope that the workers will “go back where they came from” when the job is done. There is always the suspicion that the immigrants carry with them crime and disease.
In the year 1900, an outbreak of the bubonic plague, carried by rats and transmitted to humans by fleas, hit the city of San Francisco. Because the disease was thought to have come to the city via ships from Asia, all of Chinatown was quarantined. No person of Chinese ethnicity could enter or leave. The mayor of the city insisted on the separation of the races, claiming that Chinese Americans were “a constant menace to the public health.”
Historian Paul A. Kramer of Vanderbilt University put it in perspective for me. In a message, he wrote:
Immigrant families did carry disease: sometimes due to conditions in their home countries, sometimes acquired in transit on squalid, overcrowded ships, sometimes spread in deadly tenements. But the key, negative move, it seems to me, then and now, is to associate immigrants from certain nations with disease regardless of their actual condition (and “real” Americans with healthfulness), and to see disease as something inherent in their bodies or culture, and thus calling for stigma and segregation rather than concerted, universalized public health.
The Chinese were not alone when they were feared for what contagion they might bring into the country. Almost every new ethnic group fell victim to what Richard Hofstadter in 1964 described as the “paranoid style” in American culture and politics. Over time, the diseases were small pox, plague, typhoid, malaria, tuberculosis, or polio. To the white American establishment, blame could be pinned on the Irish, the Jews, the Italians (including my closest relatives), and others.
“Typhoid Mary” was named for Mary Mallon, who came to America in 1883 from Ireland and served as a cook to affluent families. Though she did not have symptoms of typhoid, wherever she worked people became ill, and some died. She became something of a notorious celebrity and spent many years of her life in forced quarantine. Don’t be a Typhoid Mary, proclaimed public service notices of the day. Her notoriety added to the shadow cast on the Catholic Irish, who suffered great persecution at the turn of the 20th century.
I was born into an Italian American family that settled in the tenements of the Lower East Side of New York City. We lived in a working-class development called Knickerbocker Village. Those apartments, covering a whole city block, were built atop the ruins of slums that were called the Lung Block. Poor immigrant families were packed into close quarters, making them susceptible to diseases like consumption and tuberculosis, the illness that killed my uncle Vincent Marino, who died at the age of 19, about a decade before I was born.
Old dark magic
Throughout history, if you were the Other, you were dirty, diseased, and evil.
This is old dark magic. From the 1500s on, syphilis was known as the French Disease, or Italian, or Spanish, or German, or Polish Disease, depending which country and people were out of favor.
As early as the 14th century, the bubonic plague, known as the Black Death, was thought to have resulted from God’s vengeance on sinful people. Christian Europe found easy scapegoats in the Jews. There was vicious disinformation back then, too, when Jews were said to have poisoned wells and caused the illness. Whole communities were slaughtered in pogroms.
Perhaps there is no disease more associated with shunning, exile, and quarantine than leprosy. When signs of the disease appeared, the afflicted were colonized. A famous leper colony in Molokai, Hawaii, became associated with a Catholic priest named Father Damien, who cared for those with the disease, and eventually would die from it. At times, lepers were required to carry a bell when they moved in public so that the healthy could be warned of their proximity and move away.
The word “leper” became a metaphor. A “social leper” was someone who could be shunned from polite society for any reason, a pariah, such as a child molester.
Plagues are an essential part of our Judeo-Christian narrative. I worked on this essay this as we approached Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Passover. We read in scripture of the plagues set upon Egypt because of their enslavement of the Jewish people. The feast of Passover celebrates the survival of the Jews from the worst consequences of those plagues. In the Christian gospels, Jesus is described as being afraid now and then, but not of the sick, infirmed or outcast. To the leper, Christ becomes a miraculous healer.
Who are the zombies now?
I’ve traveled back thousands of years in this essay, but let’s come back to the here and now. Who are at this moment the despised, the lepers, the walking dead who have shambled out of the pandemic?
- Any outsider. If we leave disease to the side, for a moment, we can look back to how American fear of terrorism led to suspicion and intolerance, not only of Muslims traveling here from abroad, but also of patriotic Muslim Americans, many who served in the military.
- The crisis of immigration on the southern border was fueled by characterizations of those trying to cross into the country as murderers and rapists. Now add disease to the xenophobia and any person from any “other place” can become a deadly enemy. It’s a little thing, perhaps, but when U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams calls this moment our Pearl Harbor and our 9/11, he is inviting us to equate a disease with evil invaders.
- The old and infirmed, who are the most vulnerable and susceptible. In this pandemic many old people have become unapproachable — even by loved ones — because we fear infecting them, or being infected by them. For the young, especially the more thoughtless among them, the precautions needed to protect seniors feel like an inconvenience. COVID-19 has even been caricatured as the Boomer Flu.
- The young and irresponsible. I live in Florida, where Spring Breakers have frolicked for decades. Suddenly, rather than just a rowdy nuisance, they became potential carriers. The story goes that they invaded Florida from the North, gathered in the sun, boozed on beaches, clustered in motel rooms, then carried whatever they caught back to their homes and colleges, in states like New York and New Jersey.
- Health care workers. Although those who care for the sick are hailed as heroes these days in most countries fighting the disease, there is a twisted logic that can turn them into villains. If they care for the sick, so it goes, they are more likely to be carriers of the virus themselves. We don’t want them bringing contagion into our community.
- Coughers and sneezers. The weather in Florida has been dry and warm. An early spring has driven the pollen count to the top of the chart, with the pollen from oak trees dusting the top of cars yellow. We walk in the park and we cough. Or walk into the drug store and sneeze. The cry of the innocent is often “I have allergies!” But if you show any sign of illness, you are shunned.
- People from other places, especially New York. Stay out of Florida, said our state’s governor, even though he was late in closing beaches and issuing stay-at-home directives. That meant check points at our points of entry and warnings that anyone trying to fly from New York to Florida should self-quarantine for 14 days. Hey, I have lived in Florida since 1977, but I was born in New York City and grew up on the North Shore of Long Island. The epicenter for the pandemic in America was once my home, and I have family there. New Yorkers can be a-holes, but we’re not zombies. (A friend from New York City, who has a home in Massachusetts, told me that family members are living up there to protect themselves from the virus. She says that when the locals see their New York license plates, they yell and curse at them.)
We can all become “the other”
As the pandemic climbs toward an apex, we are all under suspicion.
What I am describing here is a kind of master narrative: One which says that infected people are not just potentially sick, but they are evil. Since I don’t know whether you are an “Outsider” carrying the deadly virus, I will assume the worst.
I am just old enough to remember getting the Salk Vaccine to protect us from polio. About 1955 I got a shot in the school auditorium with the other kids. I didn’t cry.
I also remember sitting at a reception desk in my workplace in about 1986 and having a man walk up to me with lesions on his face, a sign of HIV infection. While I shook the hands of all others who approached me, I pushed back my chair when I saw him, an act of fear and shunning.
I would go on to write a long newspaper series, “Three Little Words,” 10 years later, about a family in which the father died of AIDS. It was still a time when HIV infection felt like a death sentence. To the most benighted, it was God’s wrath against gay men or intravenous drug users. They were to be blamed — and shunned.
Fear, panic, paranoia, hatred unto violence. These are our true demons.