Now that the coronavirus outbreak has become a global pandemic, attention to the role of migrants in the spread of disease is likely to increase. In fact, this is already beginning to happen. More than 120 countries have reported cases of the virus, and international migration is frequently cited as the reason for the spread of the disease. For the most part, this perception is not new. As far back as the plague of Athens in 430 B.C. international migration was believed to be responsible for the spread of the virus from Ethiopia to the city. And in more recent years, migrants have also been linked to the spread of viruses associated with the SARS, Ebola, and Zika virus epidemics.
In most cases, however, perceptions about the relationship between migration and epidemics are driven by fear. One consequence of this is an increase in xenophobic reactions towards immigrants whose origins are in countries believed to be the sources of epidemics. Media reports of the increase in coronavirus cases have been followed by an increase in xenophobia towards immigrants from China, and the scale of these responses is alarming. Chinese immigrants have been banned from public places, violently attacked, and have seen declines in the number of clients patronizing their businesses. To make things worse, some of these responses were reported in countries such as Kenya, where they were observed before any coronavirus infections were recorded.
Blaming Chinese immigrants for the spread of coronavirus is counterproductive. Furthermore, there are at least two reasons why it can undermine our ability to develop policies to counter the spread of the virus. First, it ignores the fact that Chinese immigrants can provide a critical line of defense for countering the spread of the virus in our communities. Second, it undermines our ability to incorporate immigrants in the development of interventions needed to address the consequences of the pandemic.
Some of the best recent examples of the positive role immigrants can play during epidemics were those observed among African immigrants during the 2014 Ebola epidemic. At the start of the crisis, they experienced similar xenophobic responses as those now experienced by the Chinese. Nowhere were these responses more consequential than in Dallas, Texas, where Thomas Duncan, a Liberian national, became the first person to die of Ebola in the United States. Despite their own negative experiences, however, African immigrants played a major role in developing counter-actions to combat the spread of Ebola.
Central to their response were the actions of African immigrant churches. They promoted basic health practices such as frequent handwashing, participated in the contact tracing of those who had encountered Duncan, and encouraged members returning from trips to affected countries to observe a 21-day period of quarantine. Church services further became occasions for parishioners to hear sermons on disease control, while being encouraged to call relatives in West Africa to emphasize the message of Ebola prevention. Additionally, African immigrant churches took a leading role in responding to the needs of members affected by the epidemic. Most parishioners with family members who died of Ebola in West Africa received grief counselling from their pastors, some of whom were also grieving for lost relatives in the region during this period.
Along with their ethnic institutions, the African community in Dallas took additional steps to support the global effort to combat the spread of Ebola. They raised funds to support public health campaigns in Ebola-affected countries and donated medical supplies to hospitals in these countries. In one notable case, Liberian immigrants raised funds to purchase an ambulance sent to Monrovia, Liberia after learning that the city lacked one to transport Ebola patients to its hospitals.
In many cases, these actions were taken in collaboration with other American institutions. For example, when apartment complexes in Dallas turned down the rental applications of Thomas Duncan’s fiancé out of fear that she had Ebola, Wiltshire Baptist church stepped in to arrange suitable accommodations for her and her family. Similarly, when Dallas residents were skeptical about interacting with African immigrants, who they feared were infected, Clay Jenkins, a Judge in Dallas county, held news conferences to publicly push back against these fears. There were many examples of Americans choosing to partner with Africans rather than stigmatize them. These included employees who made pay-roll deductions to support the Ebola prevention efforts of African immigrants as well as Dallas businesses that donated other types of services to support these efforts.
If these examples teach us anything, it is that immigrants from countries where global epidemics started are not part of the problem but are part of the solution. It is easy to forget that Chinese immigrants are just as interested as we are in stopping the spread of COVID-19. When they are stigmatized as carriers of the disease, however, we miss critical opportunities for developing partnerships with them for combating the spread of the virus.
March 13, 2020
Kevin J.A. Thomas is a Professor of Sociology, Demography, and African Studies at The Pennsylvania State University. He is the author of Global Epidemics, Local Implications: African Immigrants and the Ebola Crisis in Dallas (Johns Hopkins University Press).