Blaming foreigners, resisting masks: Reactions to past epidemics are similar to COVID-19

The coronavirus pandemic has brought plenty of controversy with it. Residents and officials, including President Trump, have blamed China and Chinese immigrants for the disease, debated mandatory mask wearing and lockdown orders, and played down the severity of the disease.

But those reactions aren’t new.

Two USC historians reviewed public response to other epidemics in California, including cholera, the Spanish flu, and the bubonic plague. Most of the trends we’re seeing now have happened before.

“Race, difference, fear, hatred, discrimination. When you get a pandemic disease dropped in on already difficult circumstances, a lot of people are going to reach for the ugliest reflex, and that’s to blame a population for a disease that can be spread not by ethnicity or race, but by poverty,” says USC history professor William Deverell.

USC history graduate student Dan Wallace says people failed to take epidemics seriously from the 19th and 20th centuries.

“Why do people continue to fall in the same traps, even with all the things we know that’ve happened in the past?” he says. “Backing up to the plague in San Francisco, you had the governor of California who really downplayed the situation and denied really the existence of the [bubonic] plague, even when medical professionals were saying otherwise.”