Posted on May 4, 2009

Amid Swine Flu Outbreak, Racism Goes Viral

Brian Alexander, MSNBC, May 1, 2009

“No contact anywhere with an illegal alien!” conservative talk show host Michael Savage advised his U.S. listeners this week on how to avoid the swine flu. “And that starts in the restaurants” where he said, you “don’t know if they wipe their behinds with their hands!”

And Thursday, Boston talk radio host Jay Severin was suspended after calling Mexican immigrants “criminalians” during a discussion of swine flu and saying that emergency rooms had become “essentially condos for Mexicans.”


There is even talk of conspiracy. Savage speculated that terrorists are using Mexican immigrants as walking germ warfare weapons. “It would be easy,” he said, “to bring an altered virus into Mexico, put it in the general population, and have them march across the border.”

As more than 140 cases of H1N1 virus, known as swine flu, have been confirmed across the United States–from San Diego to New York City–the growing public health concern has also exposed fear and hate.

Fear and blame are counterproductive and even dangerous in any disease outbreak because the more stigmatized any group feels, the more reluctant people in that group may be to seek medical care. That only helps propagate the disease.

The attempt to scapegoat Mexicans, immigrants and Hispanic Americans is no surprise to Latino rights groups, who are now mobilizing a countereffort.

‘Ignorant beyond the pale’

Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, called such comments “racist and ignorant beyond the pale . . . these so-called commentators shame themselves turning public health concerns into an immigrant bashing fest.”

“What we have seen is that the anti-immigrant groups are using this to shamelessly to promote their agenda,” said Liany Arroyo, director of the Institute for Hispanic Health at the National Council of La Raza.

While the war of words is mainly between the conservative commentariat and Latino advocacy groups, individual Mexican-Americas are beginning to worry.


As swine flu fears have spread, the backlash has also affected some Mexican restaurants’ business, possibly fueled by disparaging comments like those of Savage questioning the hygiene of workers.


Blaming ‘the other’

Fearmongering and blame are almost a natural part of infectious disease epidemics, experts say.

“This is a pattern we see again and again,” said Amy Fairchild, chair of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in New York City. “It’s ‘the other,’ the group not seen as part of the nation, the one who threatens it in some way that gets blamed for the disease.”


Americans have time and again responded to emergencies by clamoring to shut the borders and pull up the bridges.


Fighting racism with information


Tamping down blame and fear isn’t just the right thing to do morally, experts agree, it’s also the right thing to do medically. Germs, Markel stressed, don’t care about skin color or national origins or borders.

“These are naturally occurring events,” he said. “We expect flu pandemics every 30 to 40 years. It’s the cost of living in a world of emerging infectious diseases. That’s the folly of prejudice. They are wherever humans are.”