In her research, LSA Associate Dean for the Humanities Alexandra Minna Stern examines histories of medicine and social justice in the United States and Latin America. She uses her expertise to frame the rise in xenophobia associated with the COVID-19 crisis.

Are there precedents for a pandemic like COVID-19 that can help us understand the relationship between global health crises and racial conflicts?

Alexandra Minna Stern: Pandemics always bring to the surface a wide range of societal tensions. When something like this strikes, people are afraid. There’s a new pathogenic threat. This fear in turn ignites underlying stereotypes and anxieties tied to race and otherness. My historical research has focused on immigrants and other racialized and sexualized others, and how they have been associated with disease in U.S. society.

We can look at the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, in which Chinese people in particular were portrayed as opium users and vectors of disease, which stereotyped them as closer to nature, unhygienic, and generally less evolved. All of those tropes fed into racial quotas that ultimately slowed immigration from Europe and Asia to a trickle and helped to create the Border Patrol. In all the anti-immigrant and shut-the-border discourses there is a concern about contamination, infection, and disease.  

One of the great fallacies is that if a disease emerges somewhere it is intrinsically of that nation or people. COVID-19 originated in Wuhan, China, but could have originated anywhere else in the world where a new zoonotic disease is possible. In the depraved thinking of fear, disease becomes racialized, nationalized, and intrinsically “other”—though the conditions for disease exist all over the world. We also saw this with the AIDS epidemic where the first wave of those affected, gay men, were shunned by their families as well as by some in the medical community.

We are seeing community groups, advocates, and leaders speak back against racist and xenophobic associations of COVID-19 with Asian people. Discussing disease in this way is a long-standing pattern, and we have the opportunity with COVID-19 not to follow this script. We can follow science and ethics instead.

Are there things that historical patterns or contemporary research and analysis can tell us to help us understand and navigate COVID-19?

AMS: In the history of medicine, there are patterns that are similar across time—but at the same time, every situation is context specific. We can look back and learn from the cues that should have prompted action, but this is also history in the making in real time. Could one have predicted what happened in Italy? In part it became a hotspot because it has one of the oldest populations in Europe, and people there tend to live in multigenerational households. It’s really heartbreaking.

In comparison to Italy, the United States is not as healthy a country—we have a lot of co-morbidities like hypertension, diabetes, and other chronic conditions. We also have significant social health inequalities tied to structural racism and poverty. As soon as it became clear that COVID-19 could transmit from person to person and that community spread was happening, checks should have been happening in airports and leaders should have been making requests for self-isolation and quarantine. The point is not to stigmatize people, but to inform people. The U.S. public health infrastructure has been chipped away bit by bit and the U.S. of late has not been contributing to the global public health infrastructure.  One of the big lessons of COVID-19 is when we don’t invest in public health, the resources and the coordination are not there when we need them.

Another thing we know from history is that to have an effective and meaningful response to a pandemic like this, the actions taken, like stay-at-home orders, for example, need to be firmly held in place for a good amount of time and our leaders need to communicate clearly and with transparency in order to build trust. People are being asked to give up their livelihoods for the common good, so trust must be strong.

Are there other questions that you’re thinking about right now? What are they?

AMS: First, I’m going to put on my associate dean for the humanities hat to say that humanities research and humanities frameworks are really important for understanding our current moment. The humanities allow us to look at the harmful language and rhetoric being used to describe this crisis and to challenge it. And then there’s the power of storytelling to witness and capture this history and our experiences in real time, which is important for our own process and posterity, especially since we are all socially isolated.

Secondly, the research we do in humanities often uses mixed methods. For example, let’s take the epidemiologic surveillance data from Michigan—that’s important for making public health decisions. But we can also put this data in context of the Midwest in 2020 to better understand the dramatic toll that COVID-19 is taking on communities of color in southeastern Michigan. Combining quantitative and qualitative data, statistical analysis and storytelling—all of these methods are very important for documenting and understanding the social and emotional dimensions of this pandemic.