On Charles Kenny’s “The Plague Cycle” and Trump’s China Virus.

Anti-asian crimes have been spiking in pockets around the world. This is particularly true in the United States, where the problem has grown to such a level of seriousness that President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris felt compelled to address and denounce the worrying trend. They were reacting to what everyone has seen. The grainy videos of elderly Asians being punched and beaten and spat on by fellow Americans. They were reacting to the stories everyone has heard. Asian-Americans being insulted and intimidated for no reason other than their ethnicities. At the heart of the trend lay a disease. COVID-19. According to an article in the New York Times, after the recent shootings in Atlanta, an anti-Asian Telegram group “linked to a poll that asked, ‘Appalled by the recent attacks on Asians?’ The top answer, with 84 percent of the vote, was that the violence was ‘justified retaliation for Covid.’”

The Plague Cycle: The Unending War Between Humanity and Infectious Disease by Charles Kenny deals with the complicated history of communicable diseases. It isn’t as science-heavy as its title suggests. Rather, he explores the intersection where biology, society, and economics overlap. In the process, he avoids the narrow analysis that can sometimes hamper the analysis and ultimate understanding of disease outbreaks.

Thomas Malthus and his book An Essay on the Principle of Population figure prominently in The Plague Cycle. In particular, Kenny makes the link between the way disease acts as a check on the growth of populations and the economic development of society once disease is brought under control. In one specific example, the bubonic plague plays an important role in the fates of European and Chinese fortunes.

Voigtlander and Voth suggest that the reason for the reversal in economic fortunes between china and Western Europe was the Malthusian system at work: the plague increased incomes more in the West than in the East because it was more devastating in the West than in the East.

While Kenny doesn’t elaborate on Voigtlander and Voth’s assertion, it’s been firmly established that in addition to the increased incomes, the scarcity of skilled workers resulted in a newfound fluidity in social strata. Noblemen with vast estates no longer had workers to maintain it and they were suddenly at the mercy of itinerant workers willing to provide services to the highest bidder. This eventually led to a wealthy merchant class and a bancrupt nobility with nothing but their titles. Many marriages of convenience took place between the two groups in what can be described as social symbiosis.

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Putting the creation of a mercantilist economy aside, disease still provided a significant obstacle to greater socio-economic development. In Kenny’s words:

If civilization created a firestorm of disease, disease also set the limits to the scale of urbanization. And if globalization merged disease pools, the pools crucially shaped the nature and extent of colonization and commerce.

Eventually, scientific progress extinguished enough of the “firestorm” to clear the way for larger cities to grow and increased trade to feed them with goods. Globalization could not have occurred in earnest without first bringing society-crushing epidemics under control, initially via stringent quarantine practices and later through vaccines and antibiotics. Breaking the plague cycle unleashed the promise of urbanization, globalization, and capitalism.

Kenny is particularly prescient in a chapter titled, “The Exclusion Instinct”, which explores the ways disease provides racists and xenophobes with an excuse to attack marginalized people in society. For example, an outbreak of the Black Death in 1348 provided Germans with an excuse to target a group of people. This time Jews were unfairly scapegoated in Toulon. As Kenny tells it, the Jewish quarter was “sacked and forty victims were dragged from their homes and murdered… By the end of 1348, the popular madness surrounding well poisoning had spread throughout much of Germany…More than two-thirds of the German towns with significant jewish populations saw pogroms between 1348 and 1350. We’ve seen that anti-semitism was not created by the plague, but the plague gave anti-Semites a murderous excuse.)”

It certainly wasn’t the first time something like that happened and it wouldn’t be the last. Ironically enough, with the COVID-19 pandemic still raging around the world, we are living through yet another convulsion of disease-inspired racism.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump’s repeated “China Virus” attack brings together two aspects of disease at the heart of Kenny’s book. Ever since the pandemic’s earliest days, the president and his followers went out of their way to stigmatize Asians (including fellow Americans) by repeatedly invoking racially loaded terms like “China Virus,” “Chinese Virus, and “Kung Flu.” The result? A sudden, dramatic, and documented rise in anti-Asian violence.

A recent study documented the link between the usage of the hashtags #covid19 and #chinesevirus during a two-week span (March 9, 2021-March 23, 2021) with anti-Asian sentiment. According to the paper:

One fifth (19.7%) of the 495 289 hashtags with #covid19 showed anti-Asian sentiment, compared with half (50.4%) of the 777 852 hashtags with #chinesevirus. When comparing the week before March 16, 2020, to the week after, there was a significantly greater increase in anti-Asian hashtags associated with #chinesevirus compared with #covid19 (P < .001).

In other words, the use of racially-loaded terms is associated with an uptick of negative feelings about the targeted group, in this case anyone of Asian descent.

That the attacks originated from the West Wing isn’t a surprise since throughout history, it has been the perogative of power structures around the world to stigmatize the disenfranchised. Obviously, China the country is far from disenfranchised — regardless of their we’re-just-innocent-victims rhetoric. People of color in the United States, however, do exist on the margins.

Kenny’s assertion that there are tangible economic elements in play when epidemics emerge is also borne out in Donald Trump’s China Virus campaign. The COVID-19 pandemic provided him with the perfect opportunity to attack an economic rival in the hopes that negative perceptions would translate into weakening trade between China and its trading partners.

Kenny mostly approaches pandemic discrimination in terms of the exclusion of groups from society and his analysis of the current pandemic follows suit, arguing against the long-term use of quarantine and social distancing as a means to control a widespread pandemic due to its effects on a country’s economics.

However necessary, Covid-19 exclusion has tragically illustrated the measure’s immense cost as a response to a disease in the modern world; it has spurred the most rapid contraction of the global economy in a century. We’ll see that it has also demonstrated the counterproductive futility of most travel bans on a globally connected planet.

The Plague Cycle’s focus on the economics of disease provides a lively analysis of epidemics that compliments the growing COVID-19 literature and highlights the multii-dimensional nature of the current pandemic. Epidemiology, public health, psychology, and economics should play a role in understanding COVID-19, defeating the disease, and preventing any potential threats down the line.

*Hswen, Yuli, et al. “Association of “#covid19” Versus “#chinesevirus” With Anti-Asian Sentiments on Twitter: March 9–23, 2020.” Am J Public Health. Published online ahead of print March 18, 2021: e1–e9. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2021.306154

WORDS: Marc Landas

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