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What historians heard when Trump warned of a 'foreign virus'

For immigration historians and other scholars, the way US President Donald Trump is describing the coronavirus pandemic has a familiar ring.

"This is the most aggressive and comprehensive effort to confront a foreign virus in modern history," Trump said in an Oval Office address Wednesday night. "I am confident that by counting and continuing to take these tough measures we will significantly reduce the threat to our citizens and we will ultimately and expeditiously defeat this virus."

As soon as Trump's words describing a "foreign virus" hit the airwaves, Nükhet Varlik knew she'd heard them before.

"We've had plenty of examples of this in the past. It's mindblowing that this still continues," said Varlik, an associate professor of history at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, and at the University of South Carolina.

    "It opens up the ways of thinking about disease in dangerous ways," she said. "Once you open that door...historically we have examples, we know where it goes. And we don't want to go there. I find it extremely dangerous."

    It's the latest chapter in a story that historians see as centuries in the making. From the plague to SARS, whenever an outbreak spread, racism and xenophobia weren't far behind.

    Here's what scholars told CNN about some of history's shameful episodes, and the lessons we can learn from them.

     

    The 'Black Death' in the 14th centuryI

    black death
    Italy: Plague of Florence in the 14th century as described by Giovanni Boccaccio.

    The expert: Nükhet Varlik, associate professor of history at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, and at the University of South Carolina

    The event: "Jewish populations were accused of deliberately poisoning the wells and causing the plague. We know examples of this from many places in Europe," Varlik says.

    As rumors spread, Jews were killed, buried alive and burned at the stake. And they weren't the only group erroneously blamed for causing the disease.

    "European accounts talk about plague as 'Oriental Plague.' ... They look at the Ottoman Empire as the origin of the plague. Well, it's just entirely unfounded. It's not accurate," Varlik says.

    The takeaway: "These discourses, both popular and scientific, shaped the perception of how societies understood disease and responded to it for at least the last 600 years," Varlik says. "They are not only dangerous for the present (because it informs policy and response), but also for the future because it leaves a legacy behind."

    Similarly, she says, describing coronavirus as a "foreign virus" isn't helpful. "We're all in this together," she says.

     

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