The Link Between Epidemics and Xenophobia: “When Germs Travel” by Howard Markel

Claire Styffe

Howard Markel’s When Germs Travel is a harrowing look into six epidemics that have made their mark on the United States over the last century.  The text provides both an in-depth account of infectious diseases and sheds light on the xenophobia that can arise when the emergence of disease is attributed to the presence of immigrants and outsiders.  From trachoma to tuberculosis, Markel succeeds in painting a vivid picture of how and why infectious diseases have spread in the United States—and most interestingly—the reactions that follow.  

When infectious disease epidemics are attributed to outsiders, waves of xenophobia soon follow.  As described by Markel, for example, this phenomenon is illustrated by the stigmatization of Haitians at the height of the AIDS epidemic, the labelling of trachoma as a “Jewish Disease”, and perhaps most prominently, by the quarantine enacted during the 1900 outbreak of bubonic plague in San Francisco.

The first plague victim was found dead in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and soon after all of Chinatown was placed under strict quarantine.  This quarantine, however, was clearly accompanied by a racial bias. No one of Asian descent was allowed to leave the area for any reason: “The human barrier was curiously perforated by a policy whereby white, native born American merchants could enter and exit Chinatown freely,” and reasons for the continued spread of the epidemic were attributed to the “deceitful” character of the Chinese immigrants.  With the description and analysis of the bubonic plague contagion of 1900, as well as five other disease outbreaks in America’s history, Markel succeeds in demonstrating the link between foreign diseases and the fear and oppression of outsiders.  

The contagious nature of epidemics is, of course, terrifying. However, Markel poignantly showcases in his text When Germs Travel that xenophobic reactions serve only to exacerbate such maladies. When examining the typhus outbreak along the USA-Mexico border of 1917 and the racist policies that followed, Markel offers an interesting note: “Instead of creating the means to promote health on both sides of the Rio Grande, we more often opt for the false sense of security afforded by the construction of walls and immigrant checkpoints along a 2000-mile-long porous boundary.” It is clear not only from the account of typhus, but through all those depicted in When Germs Travel that we must keep in mind that infectious diseases know no borders and that our tendency to adopt policies that create ones are no help at all.   


Claire Styffe Headshot.jpg

Claire Styffe is a U2 student currently pursuing a degree in Cell and Molecular Biology as well as Urban Systems Geography.  She is fascinated by global health and has a particular interest in preventing and minimizing the spread of infectious diseases.