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Swine Flu Xenophobia: Not Kosher

In the course of just a few days, incidents of swine flu have been reported from as far away as New Zealand, and as close as a few blocks from my Manhattan apartment.  The WHO is warning of an international pandemic, and health professionals ranging from school nurses to emergency room doctors are undergoing a crash course in identifying the symptoms of the disease.

Because the disease seems to have originated in Mexico, some conservatives have seized this opportunity to demand that the United States close the border with Mexico. According to the World Health Organization, such measures would be ineffective in stopping the spread of the disease. Even though the disease seems to have entered the United States via American tourists to Mexico, there is a real chance that immigrants will be stigmatized as the bearers of disease.  To cite just one anti-immigrant commentator:

The recent outbreak of Swine flu in Mexico and over 40 cases in the United States exposes yet another aspect of mass immigration into the United States.  Such outbreaks of diseases stem from cultures that lack personal hygiene, personal health habits and standards for disease prevention. . . .

Why?  Short answer: culture and customs.  The Bird flu spreads across Asia because people live and sleep with their chickens, with their pigs, with their livestock.  It’s their culture.  They live in such compacted numbers that they cannot move toward healthy paradigms.

Blaming immigrants for introducing disease into the United States is not a new phenomenon. In Silent Travelers: Germs, Genes, and the “Immigrant Menace” (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1994), Alan M. Kraut traces the ways in which various immigrant groups, including the Irish, Italians, Jews, and Haitians, have been accused of spreading diseases ranging from typhoid to polio to tuberculosis to AIDS.


In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, tuberculosis was often known as the “Tailor’s Disease” or the “Jewish Disease.” Because the disease spreads quickly among people living in cramped quarters, poor immigrants living in tenements were more likely to contract TB than wealthier Americans were.In 1908, Dr. Manly H. Simons, the medical director of the US navy had this to say about Jews and disease:


The poorer classes of Jews are very unsanitary; they work and live in dirty and badly ventilated quarters. . . as a type, Jews are beginning to show mental and physical degredation as evidenced by the great variability of development, great brilliancy, idiocy, moral perversity, epilepsy, physical deformity, anarchistic and lawless tendencies." (qtd in Kraut 145)


The Jewish community responded by establishing hospitals to care for Jewish patients with TB and with other communicable diseases. At the time, most hospitals admitted only patients with physical injuries, and would not treat anyone with a communicable disease. Wealthier patients would not enter hospitals, but instead would receive private medical care at home. Jewish hospitals opened their doors first to Jewish patients with contagious diseases, and then to any patient with such an illness. These hospitals not only treated sick people of all ethnic backgrounds, but also helped to reduce the stigma of disease and to alleviate fears of an immigrant-borne plague.


Will swine flu be the TB of the twenty-first century? I certainly hope not. I hope that this disease, like many public health scares before, disappears quickly befor reaching pandemic status. And whatever happens, I hope that the anti-immigration folks fail to turn today’s Mexicans into yesterday’s Jews.

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