The ugly history of blaming ethnic groups for outbreaks

Protesters hold placards during a rally against an inbound travel ban on foreign travellers from China, outside the Department of Immigration and Border Protection in Sydney, on Feb 7, 2020. PHOTO: EPA-EFE
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As the coronavirus outbreak grows in scale and scope, a nasty side effect spreads: discrimination. Inside China, people from Wuhan have been treated like lepers. Outside, we're seeing numerous reports of verbal and physical abuse aimed at ethnic Chinese, and an aversion to Chinese restaurants and other places associated with the country.

Sadly, this is nothing new: Past outbreaks have often gone hand in hand with ugly prejudice, with various ethnic or racial groups blamed for the disease. But this behaviour, however commonplace in the past, has always backfired for the most obvious of reasons: Diseases don't discriminate.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 19, 2020, with the headline The ugly history of blaming ethnic groups for outbreaks. Subscribe