Until recently, Representative Paul Gosar, a Republican from Arizona, was most famous for tweeting a lie: a faked photo of President Barack Obama shaking hands with Hassan Rouhani, the president of Iran. This weekend, Gosar made news with another tweet: In response to the report that he had been in contact with a man confirmed to have contracted the novel coronavirus, he announced that he was placing himself in self-quarantine from what he called the “Wuhan virus.”
Scientists are using the internationally accepted name COVID-19 to describe the disease caused by the novel coronavirus that was discovered late last year. But a number of prominent conservatives—including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas—are going with Wuhan virus, as if the deadly new pathogen were one more scourge to be blamed on the Chinese. As many of the responses to Gosar on Twitter pointed out, this kind of rhetoric invites the public to see a global epidemic in racial or (at best) geopolitical terms.
Defenders of the term countered both that the virus did appear first in a real place called Wuhan, and that many diseases are named after the site of a first or famous outbreak. That’s true of the viral hemorrhagic infections Ebola and Marburg, tick-borne Lyme disease, and others. But the geographic defense has to be weighed against the rhetoric that says out loud what locating the current threat to Wuhan only implies.
In the past five years, Donald Trump has explicitly promoted the notion that foreigners carry contagion. In 2015 he proclaimed that Mexicans were to blame for “tremendous infectious disease … pouring across the border,” a charge he has repeated as president. Meanwhile, the deliberate cultivation of fears of infectious disease from China has a long, nasty history in the United States—one that even today’s bitter partisans should be willing to acknowledge.
Hawaii had been in turmoil through much of the 1890s, especially after 1893, when white immigrants from the United States overthrew the last Hawaiian monarch, Queen Lili‘uokalani. Her efforts to regain power failed, and the United States annexed the islands in 1898. The next year, in November, a ship outbound from Hong Kong made port in Honolulu. At least one passenger made his or her way to the city’s Chinatown. On December 12, the disease that unidentified traveler had carried announced itself in the death of a 22-year-old Chinese bookkeeper named You Chong, the first victim on American territory of what is now known as the third global pandemic of the bubonic plague. Four more Chinatown residents became sick and died soon after.
Local officials reacted swiftly and decisively. Chinatown was cordoned off, locking about 10,000 people in place, and the local board of health acted on its theory of the infection: The bubonic plague was caused by the dirt—the word used was “filth”—and packed conditions in which Honolulu’s Chinese residents lived.
If the muck the white authorities saw bred into the lives and habits of the Chinese really was the cauldron in which disease brewed, then the solution was obvious. As the historian Nayan Shah writes, the head of the board of health, Henry Cooper, ordered the creation of a literal firebreak between the supposed reservoir of disease in Chinatown and the rest of the city. On January 20, officials set what was supposed to be a controlled burn, a strategic disinfection. Just as the first fires ignited, the wind picked up, embers flipped to neighboring roofs, and within the day, all of Chinatown was in flames. The fire burned for more than two weeks; 45,000 people lost their homes.
A similar sequence of malign ignorance, combined with a depressingly contemporary money-motivated blindness would play out over the next few years as the disease moved on. The pandemic was already more than a century old when it reached Honolulu. It had started in China’s Yunnan province in the 1770s, but had remained a mostly local outbreak until the 1850s, when a combination of civil war and the globalization created as European powers extended their empires sped the disease on its way. The plague reached China’s coast in the 1870s, and from there, the ships that bore imperial trade carried the plague across the globe.
Infection in Hawaii 20 years later delivered a clear message: The disease was still on the move. There was little doubt about its next destination: the American West Coast, and most likely its busiest port, San Francisco.
Its journey didn’t take long. The first documented victim, a Chinese laborer named Wong Chut King, died in San Francisco’s Chinatown on March 6, 1900. The outbreak that followed lasted until 1904, killing more than one hundred people, most of them Chinese. The established racial mythology of the day—that the Chinese were alien threats, vectors of social contagion—molded the city’s response. On March 7, the day after Wong died, a rope barrier appeared around Chinatown, and police forced every ethnic Chinese person to remain confined in the area—while allowing white people to leave. (For my account of these events I’ve relied on Gunther Risse’s Plague, Fear, and Politics in San Francisco’s Chinatown; Nayan Shah’s Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown; and David K. Randall’s Black Death at the Golden Gate.)
The quarantine didn’t hold—but in its place came proposals for a much more radical solution. If the packed and impenetrable Chinese neighborhood was the source of a dread disease, why not simply eradicate it, to achieve by design what Honolulu’s firebrands had accomplished by accident? As the historian Gunther Risse reports, a newspaper said the quiet part out loud: Chinatown was a “foul spot” and “the only way to get rid of that menace is to eradicate Chinatown from the city … and give the debris to the flames.” Burn it down, start again (not coincidentally, on a patch of prime real estate), and as for those who lived there? A member of the San Francisco Board of Health knew what to do: “Every Chinese in Chinatown ought to be removed to a detention camp somewhere in the hills.”
San Francisco’s Chinatown survived the threat, of course; it’s still there today. Its residents were not marched to the hills; California’s Asian concentration camps would not appear until 1942 with the internment of residents of Japanese origin. But in a wholly depressing anticipation of our present-day predicament, the focus on an alleged ethnic link to the emergence and spread of the disease both fueled ongoing discrimination and made a terrifying epidemic worse.
Then as now, leaders at first tried to minimize the sense of danger. Just as Trump and other political leaders initially downplayed the threat from COVID-19, city and state officials in California in the early 1900s tried to deny that the Chinatown deaths were due to the plague. Hoping to limit the economic damage that news of an epidemic would cause, they belittled the scientists and ignored their brand-new understanding that plague was caused by a bacterium carried by fleas riding on rats.
Once the reality of the outbreak was undeniable, the characterization of the plague as a disease born of a specifically Chinese squalor within the Chinatown ghetto delayed the response that the handful of trained public-health experts in place knew was necessary: eradicating the rats that could carry the disease beyond any quarantine line San Francisco’s city fathers might choose to draw. As a result, the disease gained time and space in which to spread—first, across the bay in an almost all-white population, three years after San Francisco’s last case in 1904, and then into rodent populations that spread across the American West, where plague remains endemic to this day.
That’s the epidemiological price we’re still paying for allowing racist tropes to drive disease response more than a century ago. And that provides the context in which to judge Gosar, Pompeo, Cotton, and others who seek to rebrand COVID-19 as a Chinese problem and blame one more of our afflictions on a malign outside entity. As in 1900, to insist on a geographic definition of disease today is to locate responsibility somewhere other than here. This is a cowardly evasion. But that’s not the worst of it, at least in pragmatic terms. Now, as then, emphasizing place rather than the clinical details of how a disease works and spreads means that epidemics get a head start.
What’s in a name? Life and death.