Pandemics and Economics in History #5

Disease and Outsiders

Pandemics and Economics in History #5: Disease and Outsiders

For this episode, we return to Charles Kenny’s The Plague Cycle: The Unending War between Humanity and Infectious Disease. He writes:

The association of disease with outsiders–either socially undesirable or geographically distant — continued through the centuries. Take syphilis, first recorded in Europe in the armies of Charles VIII of France, fighting in Italy in 1494 (newly returned members of Columbus’s crew were among the troops….it became known variously as the Naples Disease, the Spanish Sickness, the French Pox, the German Sickness, and the Polish Sickness, depending on the course of its spread and the traditional national prejudices of the country most recently infected. When it reached the Middle East, it was called “the European Pestilence.” And the Japanese labeled it “the Chinese Pox.” (Similarly, the Irish were blamed for bringing cholera to the US in 1832, the Italians for spreading polio, and tuberculosis was called “the Jewish disease.”)
— Kenny, p.89

Kenny describes incidents around widespread infection in the 1300s and 1400s in Europe, beginning with France in 1321 CE: People suffering from Hansen’s Disease — often called lepers — were suspected of a plot to contaminate water all over the country with leprosy. Under torture, heads of some leper houses — where people suffering from the disease lived together in isolation from the general population — accused Jews, who were living nearby, and Muslims kings, from distant lands, of orchestrating the plot. Jews and lepers were burned to death. Later in the same century, European Jews were accused of deliberately poisoning wells to spread the bubonic plague. Many were murdered.

Kenny adds:

The Jewish population of Basel and Strasbourg were herded into specially constructed houses that were set on fire. In Speyer and Worms, Jewish communities headed off murder through mass self-immolation. More than two-thirds of the German towns with significant Jewish populations saw pogroms between 1348 and 1350.
— Kenny, p.86-87

Leaving more from this source and others, as well as any further analysis or economic specifics, for another day, we jump ahead to the United States and Covid-19…

Hate Crimes against Asian American/Pacific Islanders

…where, as reported Kate Brumback of the Associated Press, early on March 17:

A 21-year-old Georgia man has been arrested in the killings of eight people at three Atlanta-area massage parlors, many of them women of Asian descent, authorities said.

Police said the motive wasn’t immediately known, but the ethnicity of many of the victims prompted fears that the killings could be yet another hate crime against Asian Americans.

…The killings came amid a recent wave of attacks against Asian Americans that coincided with the spread of the coronavirus across the United States.

— “Georgia massage parlor shootings leave 8 dead; man captured” (March 17, 2021 AP wire)

A group called Stop Asian American Pacific Islander Hate just released a report on the national rise in hate crimes against Asians and Pacific Islanders in the U.S. over the course of this pandemic year. The report is available from the group’s Report Page and copied below.

Back in November, we shared a Covid-19 Social Justice Guide, called “Map the Truth.” It was created by a partnership of the Advancement Project National Office and intended as a “response to the rampant rise of toxic disinformation and hate-based bigotry witnessed amid this pandemic.” The project invites us to “Take a journey and read this as you would a roadmap so that it takes you through a journey of learning, and unlearning. Engage with the social media toolkit to pass on shareable graphics far and wide. The first step to tackling hate is always to open our doors to conversations centered in love, and in one another — together.”


Kenny, Charles. The Plague Cycle: The Unending War Between Humanity and Infectious Disease. NY: Scribner, 2021. Booktalk on C-SPAN in January. Also available on YouTube.

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