Scapegoats cause disease

The New York Times has a fascinating piece on the historical tendency for societies to find scapegoats for outbreaks of disease.

The article gives examples from modern epidemics of how specific groups have been singled out as responsible for a disease as a simple explanation for complex situations.

One of the most interesting parts is where it tackles why certain groups may have been targeted.

In some cases, the author hypothesises that certain cultural practices may have meant some subcultures were less affected by outbreaks, making it easier for more affected population to point the finger of suspicion:

It is not uncommon for ethnic groups to have religious or cultural customs that protect against disease — but whether it was originally intended to do that or not is often lost in time.

Manchurian nomads, Dr. McNeill said, avoided plague because they believed marmots harbored the souls of their ancestors, so it was taboo to trap them, although shooting them was permitted. Butin the early 20th century, trapping by immigrants from China contributed to plague outbreaks.

And Tamils from India working as plantation laborers in Malaysia may have had less malaria and dengue than their Malay and Chinese co-workers did because they never stored water near their houses, leaving mosquitoes no place to breed.

The article reminded me of Jared Diamond’s influential book Guns, Germs, and Steel. Diamond argues that it is impossible to separate the history of human culture from the influence of disease because disease has been one of the most powerful, if not unintentional, influences in competition between social groups.

Link to NYT ‘Finding a Scapegoat When Epidemics Strike’.

One thought on “Scapegoats cause disease”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: