It is human to fear the “dangerous other,” the person who brings disease or violence or death.  In prior epidemics the dangerous other was often easy to recognize.  In plague times any stranger to the village was a risk.  In medieval Europe a leper had to wear distinctive clothing and act in certain proscribed ways to limit contagion.  For yellow fever, the great disease of tropical seafaring, anyone from an “infected ship” was to be feared and isolated.  By the late nineteenth century the immigrants pouring into the port of New York, immigrants with their strange clothing, languages, and visages, were feared for the typhus, smallpox, tuberculosis and cholera they might bring.  Irish working-class children knew a ditty: “ahem, ahem, me mother has gone to church, she told me not to play with you because you’re in the dirt.  It isn’t because you’re dirty, it isn’t because you’re clean, it’s because you have the whooping cough and eat margarine.”  In other words, avoid those with the loud cough, or who were from families so poor they can’t afford good, decent Irish butter.  Coronavirus sports no such clear signs.  Actually, the more affluent may be more at risk, as they may be more exposed globally, including within airplanes.  But we think we can distinguish the “dangerous other” from “normal folk,” i.e. “people like us.”  We can’t.  The long asymptomatic, infectious period may be its greatest weapon in bringing us down.  

Margaret Humphreys

Josiah Charles Trent Professor of the History of Medicine

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