The Dirty Immigrant Myth: From Typhoid Mary to the Schengen Fallacy
How racism still shapes modern epidemiology policies
WARNING: This article contains highly racist, offensive, and upsetting historical tropes that you will almost certainly find emotionally challenging. If this is likely to distress you, maybe skip this.
Let’s start with one very obvious, if oft overlooked point: viruses, parasites, and bacterium don’t care about feelings, morals, borders, politics, nationalism, or religion. They do not care if you are a god-fearing Protestant in Alabama, or a wicked heathen dallying in any number of sins in Soho. Variants can explode into transmission in any nation, in any neighborhood, and in any family. No matter how ‘good’ you are at being clean, tidy, monogamous, god fearing, or law abiding, getting sick can happen. Pathogen latency, infection, or genetic drift isn’t based upon whether you personally wear a mask, used a condom, or whether you wash your hands, it is just a biological fact that can and does happen. You could do everything ‘right’ to reduce the risk and still get HIV, malaria, typhoid or the flu. It’s not your fault. Illness is not, and will never be, a moral issue.
Moralizing over disease isn’t something that started with COVID-19, or even AIDS. As long as we’ve had diseases as a species, we’ve had accompanying cultural and social myths and taboos about how they work. Wicked people do get syphilis, but good people don’t. Disgusting people get cholera, but tidy people don’t. Adulterous people get gonorrhoea, but faithful people don’t. Filthy people carry plague, but clean people don’t. Much of this pseudoscience is based on the old prejudice suspects:
In a pre-modern, pre-germ theory context, a lot of these ignorant suppositions make sense. You can ‘see’ that a disease is widespread in poor neighborhoods, and rather than assuming it’s a particle or harmful pathogen, you assume it’s a moral issue. Poor people are naturally dirty. Poor people are naturally lazy. Poor people are naturally stupid. Poor people are naturally immoral, reckless, and sinful. That’s why they’re poor, right? God has made them poor because they are bad. Therefore, disease must be linked to morality. This was such a widespread belief- and in some countries, it is still mainstream- that it is too shameful for a wealthy or famous person to publicly acknowledge or seek help for diseases associated with poverty or sexuality.
Even today, ‘admitting’ to testing positive for AIDS, Lyme’s disease, or COVID-19 carries a large stigma of guilt. Was that person irresponsible, or worse, reckless? What did they do ‘wrong’ to get the disease? Of course, any doctor will tell you that anyone can catch an STI, and anyone can get COVID-19. You could take every precaution imaginable and just get unlucky. Condoms break. Mold happens. Fleas bite. Water gets contaminated. Partners lie about their sexual history. Masks don’t always work. Washing your hands doesn’t always work. Socially distancing doesn’t always work. The best thing you can do is be cautious and make educated, informed decisions on your health: but that’s all. It’s never a dead cert. You’re never ‘wrong’ for getting a disease, or immoral. It’s never a bearing on how ‘good’ you are as a person.
We were all shocked back in 2019, when invasive health measures were still an unlikely B movie plot, to read about Typhoid Mary’s in the early 1900s. It was harrowing. This tidy, and by all accounts pleasant, law-abiding Irish lady was cruelly forced into an island to live as a leper due to being a latent typhoid carrier. She died there. How could they possibly treat a human being like this? Banned from civilisation? Imprisoning her due to her health status? Well, the answer, as with so many things, was the R word. Mary was the tip of the massive R shaped iceberg.
Racism against the Irish was kinda a big deal in 1800s and 1900s New York. Mary would have been associated with drunkenness, promiscuity, loose morals and bad hygiene from the word ‘go’. Irish people, and indeed Catholics, faced some of the most aggressive stereotyping to be found on the East Coast. It wasn’t unusual to see signs in papers saying ‘Irish need not apply’ or ‘Irish not welcome’. This wasn’t legal, technically, but it was so widespread no one did much about it.
The idea that being Irish was associated with immorality and illness, when so many were in such dire poverty and having suffered the hardships of a famine that killed off 1 in 5 of their population, is not hard to reconcile when you consider the strong belief that disease and hardship was caused by wickedness. Of course, now we know that the living conditions forced on the poor (damp, filthy, crowded, flea ridden) were the causes of their extremely high death rates, rather than any god-given punishment. But tropes stick. For over a hundred years, tropes about ‘the Irish’ were widespread in literature, TV, media, and film, almost all of them related to drunkenness, hysteria, sexual immorality, and tragic deaths from wasting diseases and war. The idea of portraying a clean, healthy, calm, studious or moral Irish-American was considered laughable. So, as they would also do with newly arriving Asian-Americans, New York decided that it would be best to treat all arriving Irish people like they were definitely diseased from the off to ‘protect’ their own inhabitants.
This made absolutely no sense, even then.
TB was already raging through New York, particularly Brooklyn. Cholera, typhus and polio took the lives of countless children, and getting typhoid was so common that many avoided bathing and drinking water. Stopping incoming TB or typhoid cases was a bit like turning the sprinkler on outside Chernobyl. It was obvious to anyone with a brain, or maybe on reflection not, that a policy of slum clearance and rehabilitation into less crowded, damp conditions was essential to reduce fatalities, as was an early diagnosis and a separation of those known to be contagious from the same sleeping quarters as new hosts. Of course, they decided to just get super racist instead, which is always the more popular suggestion.
Their answer was, obviously, to treat arriving Irish people like traffickers. Well, traffickers of pathogens. They were routinely stripped, had their clothes and belongings burnt, and many faced extreme persecution and ostracization from the WASP communities. Many maids were forced to scrub their hands until they bled by hysterical mistresses, and many men were forced to eat separately in case they infected their (equally likely to be infectious) German and English laborers. Women were told to rewash sheets in boiling water by squeamish customers after finding out their laundrymaids were Irish. When we consider what we know about how rampant the disease already was- and what was actually causing high levels of disease in Irish immigrants (Brooklyn housing)- it is all the more tragic.
When the US has such soaring cases of Delta today- now making up over 70% of cases- it seems we are arriving at similar levels of disease hysteria with the Schengen Fallacy as we were with the Dirty Irish policies of the 1800s and 1900s.
For those of you that don’t know: Biden has decided to keep the US/Europe borders shut after nearly two years, in case Europeans import Delta cases into the US.
But that makes sense, surely? I hear you whisper. I mean, why import any new cases in? Why indeed. Ladies and Gentleman, I give you:
The Schengen Fallacy
a) Americans can travel to and from Europe freely without needing to test or quarantine on their return.
b) Yes, even without a test, or a vaccine.
c) But Europeans, even those who are fully vaccinated with a negative test, cannot legally enter the US due to a total ban on the ‘Schengen Area’.
This is of course, rather silly. Do Americans bringing Delta in have much cleaner noses, perhaps? Maybe the Delta variant they bring in will be less filthy and riddled with disease than one brought in on a British nostril? Maybe the Americans who return from Europe will be sensible, and wash their superior American hands. All of it makes absolutely no scientific sense whatsoever. It is ‘following the science’ about as much as telling everyone to ward off the plague using sweet scented herbs.
In an interesting inversion of the ‘Dirty Irish’ trope, there are very loud whispers in Britain that Biden is punishing Britain for their cruel history with Ireland, given his own heritage, and that this silly ban is a rather snide form of revenge. Perhaps we have come full circle and have arrived at the ‘dirty English’ instead of the ‘Dirty Irish’.
All we do know is that we are not, and have never been, following the science.