15 September 2020

Trump's racism in "Chinese Virus" grew out of C19th cholera pandemic racism.

An offensive part of President Donald Trump’s reaction to coronavirus was when he called the novel coronavirus the China Virus.  Despite WHO specifically not naming the disease after any place where the outbreak might have begun, and despite know­ing that racist terminology fueled hate crimes against people of Asian descent, Trump’s anti-Asian discrimination continued.

Because Time’s photo showed the speech-change from “coronavirus” to “Chinese Virus” was in Trump’s own handwriting, I assumed the new label came from Trump’s racist thinking. A number of articles appeared, in sources of varying credibil­ity, criticising Chinese wet markets and tradit­ional medical pract­ic­es, again assigning a deeply cultural culpa­bility for coronavirus. Asian Americans were being harassed across the US, in the language of ill hygiene that many of these incidents occurred.

 In his speech, Pres Trump hand-changed the word "Coronavirus" to "Chinese Virus"  
Time (top image)

Now Sagaree Jain has written a historic view of racism in chol­era pandemics. Historians marked the first cholera pandemic as 1817, spreading along trade routes from India to Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, In­donesia, China and Japan by 1822. The second pandemic began in 1829-32, when the disease circulated from Britain to Canada and the USA, and from Mexico to Cuba. Eng­lish-speaking doctors on both sides of the Atl­an­tic referred to this new cholera by its place of origin. In 1831, the New York City Board of Health requ­ested that 3 of the city’s most prominent doctors quickly collect all information pub­lished in Europe or Asia on the subject of The Oriental Cholera.

English poster warning Clerkenwell citizens about Indian Cholera, 

The cholera epidemic was often blamed on foreigners; nativist groups re­vived fear of the spreading disease as a reason to restrict imm­ig­ration. NY mayor Philip Hone wrote about Europeans, not Asians, in 1832: “Irish and Germ­ans coming by Can­ada, New York and New Orleans, filthy, intemper­ate, unused to the comforts of life and regardless of its prop­riet­ies. They flock to the populous towns of the great West, with dis­ease contracted on shipboard, and increased by bad habits on shore. They inoculate the inhabitants of those beautiful cities, and every paper is only a record of premature mor­tality. The air seems to be corrupted and indulgence in things here­tofore innocent is frequently fatal now in these cholera times.” 

In the first waves of Asiatic Cholera, the British medical estab­l­ish­ment was still deeply influenced by the humoral-body fluids trad­ition found in Galen’s writing. It was believed that dis­ease stemmed from miasmas of bad air, especially in unsanitary con­d­it­ions. In the early C19th, British doctors accepted Indian pract­itioners where the common belief was that it was India’s hot climate that exposed British soldiers to disease. Wealth­ier Brit­ish colonisers moved to cooler hill-stations.

Only in 1854 did the British physician Dr John Snow locate a large outbreak of cholera via a single neighbourhood pump. He thus proved that cholera was transmitted in water.

Existing fears about Indian society increased the anxiety sur­rounding cholera's advance. The sanitary commissioner of Bengal Dr David Smith wrote scath­ingly on disease and unsanitary cond­it­ions in the Hindu pilgrimage to the god Jag­an­nath: “The human mind can’t sink lower than it has done in connec­t­ion with the appalling degeneration of idol-worship at Pooree.” 

In 1884, Dr Charles Macnamara lectured on Asiatic Chol­era at the Westminster Hospital, citing a 1871 government order: Asiatic cholera has a peculiar infectiousness which, when local conditions assist, can operate with terrible for­ce. In the C19th, Asiatic Cholera was used by Western­ers to de­scr­ibe a new disease that originated in Bengal and that was part­ic­ul­arly virul­ent and deadly. The term was also used to define a whole subcont­inent as diseased and unhygienic. South Asia was cast as being in some way to blame for a cholera that rav­aged the world.

British knowledge of sanitation and disease trans­mission advanced rapidly. But rather than leading to a common und­erstanding about the disease, Brit­ish doctors derided Indian hygiene. Hist­orian David Arn­old wrote in Cholera and Colonial­ism in British In­dia (1986): the Indian origins of ch­ol­­era and its global spread from Bengal made the disease a con­ven­ient sym­bol for what­ever the West feared about very diff­erent societies. One of the clearest expressions of this fear arose from the epid­emiol­ogical link between cholera and Hindu pilgrimage. Arnold knew that cholera was only a micro-organism; it acquired meaning and signif­icance from its human context. His research clarified that medical profession­als relied on moral judgments in character­ising Indians pilgrims.

Dr William Eggleston wrote Oriental Pil­grimages & Chol­era (1892): The most riotous imagination could scarcely exaggerate the filth of India & Egypt and of the Hindoo and Moh­ammedan pilgrims, for when peop­le use the same water for bathing, washing soiled clothes and drink­ing, they are scarcely ripe for moral suasion. So long as the pil­grimages continue, Europe and this country will be endangered and will be visited by cholera. 

Asian immigrants examined by medical staff at Angel Island Immigration Station, c1900. 

Asian women detained at Angel Island for up to 6 months before being deported or accepted, c1900.  Berkeley 

The British inquired into the conditions of South Asian people on pilgrimages, then classified pilgrims as a dan­gerous class who needed specific surveillance systems. This revealed the power of the Colonial Gaze, the ability to categ­orise whole practices as senseless and backwards eg Hindu or Muslim pilgrimage.

It would not be until 1883 that scientists discovered that cholera was caused by the bacterium Vibrio cholerae carried in water.

Sagaree Jain concluded that cholera was used to drive a wedge bet­ween C19th British Empire cultures, intentionally or otherwise. Even as British doct­ors improved their understanding of disease transmission, racism continued. Between fear of cholera and ignorance of pil­grimages, the British medical establish­ment had characterised a whole culture as fil­thy. In 2020, we should not be repeating C19th racist assignations. 


Student of History said...

Once scientists discovered that cholera was caused by the bacterium Vibrio cholerae, and that it was transmitted in water, did racist feelings about Asian filth end? Probably not. Racists are racists.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Thank you for reminding me to check the status of my ballot. Once my overseas registration is confirmed, I can print out the ballot and mail it back to the Board of Elections. I hate every example of the prejudiced attitude. People in power use it to manipulate, and their adherents use it to blame others for their troubles or to inflate their self-importance. Yuck!

Andrew said...

Whether Trump is or isn't racist is beside the point. He is playing the racist card for political advantage without any care for what the world and many of his own citizens think of him. Sadly so many in the world even now don't have access to clean drinking water.

mem said...

Very interesting subject and one fraught with dangers. The reality is that this virus probably did start in China fro reasons that are yet to be determined . How do we act in a preventative health paradigm without casting aspersions and fanning the flames of racism ? I suspect that racists will always find means for being racist . They just grab whatever vehicle they can . Trump is an outright sociopathic a-hole who would have grabbed onto something else to promote his evil.

Hels said...


If we believe that racist medical information was only directed to the pandemic in question, then I suppose the end of racist science might have ended its racist impact on society. However I actually think that racist science led to other racist policies later on.

Australia's Immigration Restriction Bill (Dec 1901) was one of the first Bills introduced to the new Federal Parliament, with a multiple approach to stopping non-white (largely Chinese) population growth. The White Australia Policy was immoral.

Hels said...


I agree that people in power can "use" racism to manipulate, and their adherents use it to blame others for their troubles. But what happens if the doctors, politicians and tv commentators really do believe that Chinese bodies carry infections and infect European communities, that Jews put poison in Christian wells, and that Africans use ebola to their advantage?

In times of panic, even non-racist people will become hysterical.

Hels said...


politicians lie and exaggerate for political advantage all the time *nod*. But if the prime minister of Australia said that aboriginal men were responsible for all TB cases, whether he believed it or not, a lot of aboriginal men would be hounded down and wounded.

Hels said...


I too am keen for us to find out where the epidemics first started and how they were controlled: Cholera pandemics of 1852–60 and 1910-1; flu pandemics of 1889-90 and 1918-9; Ebola 1976-; AIDS 1981-, SARS 2003 and Coronaviru 2020- etc etc. But finding a preventative health paradigm without fanning the flames of racism is a question of testing, tracking, isolating victims and vaccinating the entire population that must be run by the _World Health Organisation_. Not by one nasty racist politician trying to make his mark on politics.

Food Blog said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Hels said...

Food Blog

thanks for coming into this blog. Do you have any interest in the racism found in 19th and 20th century pandemics?

mem said...

I read this AM, I think on Apple News ,that an organization funded by a Trump accolite ( Steve Bannon) has published a "scientific" paper stating that the virus was made in a lab . It has been reviewed by scientists who say its bad science and the evidence isnt there but it will get onto the pages of Brightbart etc and it will be off . Its really very depressing how stupid people are when they want to believe something . I am just scared that on both Chinese and American sides they are facing up to conflict by causing outrage in their respective populations. and of course Putin and his bots will be right is the middle of it having fun and making sure that stupid Trump gets reelected.

Hels said...


Bannnon was an investment banker and executive chairman of ultra-right wing Breitbart News, and then a political strategist. If I was the American President and wanted to establish that the virus was indeed made in a Chinese lab to spread pain and death to the rest of the world, I would have asked proper scientists and doctors to write the paper. Perhaps President Trump did, but the real scientists refused to cooperate.

The real scientists who analysed Bannon's rubbish and said it was not science at all are wasting their breath. The proportion of all Americans who warmly approve of the President’s behaviour and speeches about the coronavirus' outbreak and vaccine is 39% at this pre-election time :(

bazza said...

With regards to Donald Trump's thinking: He continually exhibits classic symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder whereby he doesn't recognise that he is lying. He is caught up in a web where he is the centre of the universe and everything revolves around him. Anyone who crosses or challenges him is instantly cut-off. Nothing matters apart from himself and how what he perceives affects him - and him only.
Sadly, I am speaking from experience of seeing this in a relative. I have learned now how to cope and manage this person. However, that such a person could have even been accepted by the Republican Party as a suitable candidate is something that I find puzzling and disturbing.
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s joyously judicious Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hels said...


absolutely true... that even when the lies are caught on tape or on line, Trump is absolutely comfortable saying the exact opposite. And believing it.And anyone who crosses or challenges him is instantly cut-off, gaoled or libelled, even people who had once been his greatest supporters.

But even politicians with Narcissistic Personality Disorder need not be racist. A senior politician who implies or states the culpability of blacks, Chinese etc knows perfectly well what will happen to those minority groups. In other words, racism is always intentional.

CherryPie said...

The Influenza outbreak in 1918 was dubbed 'Spanish Flu'. The virus did not originate in Spain.

During the WW1 Spain had freedom to report about the virus without being censored due to being neutral in the war.

Spain was able to report about the virus and its effects.

Hels said...


How ironic is that? The first cases of the so-called Spanish Flu were reported in Camp Funston, Fort Riley Kansas in March 1918. When 200,000 American soldiers sailed across the Atlantic to Europe that year, they quickly spread the disease in unsuspecting communities.

Even if we still don't have treatments or vaccines now, hopefully we are more sophisticated about tracing and quarantining victims than they were in 1918.