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Yellow Peril, Again: Coronavirus and the Echoes of Chinese Exclusion

By Adrienne Berard

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Image credit: Gerd Altmann

“I say to this country that we know not when the next wall will be erected, nor where its foundations will be laid.”
—Rep. Ezra B. Taylor on the Chinese Exclusion Act, Congressional Record, March 16, 1882 

The new virus emerged in December. The coronavirus, or COVID-19, originated in Wuhan, a city of 11 million located in central China. Since the initial outbreak, more than 76,000 people have been infected globally, in as many as twenty-seven countries, with more than 2,200 deaths being reported, mostly in China.

Concerns over the spread of the virus prompted the World Health Organization to declare it a “public health emergency of international concern.” The global response was swift, as nations hurried to harden borders and restrict travel.

On January 31, the Trump administration announced a strict travel ban, barring foreign nationals who’d recently been to China from entering the US and warning Americans to stay out of China. The Atlantic reported that the measures broke with guidance from the WHO, which did not recommend curbs on travel or trade.

Physicians nationwide have noted that the flu is a much greater threat to Americans than the coronavirus. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that, so far, there could be as many as 41 million cases of influenza in the US alone this flu season—and as many as 41,000 deaths as a result of infection.

For me, the coronavirus outbreak has put into sharp relief the American tradition of conflating immigration and infection. In fact, America’s fear of the “diseased immigrant” dates back to the nation’s first major wave of immigration and our initial understanding of disease itself.

The turn of the twentieth century saw an unprecedented surge in immigration. In one year alone—1904—a million immigrants left their homelands for the United States, the most in the nation’s history up to that point.

At the same time, scientific and public consciousness regarding the nature of bacteria and illness was growing. In the 1860s, Louis Pasteur conducted experiments showing the relationship between germs and disease. By the 1880s, Joseph Lister had fully articulated the germ theory of disease and developed practical applications to mitigate contamination.

With this new understanding came fears that immigrants would bring disease into the United States. Fear of disease fused with fear of newcomers, and nativists used that fear to restrict foreign immigration by any means necessary.

On May 6, 1882, President Chester A. Arthur signed into law the Chinese Exclusion Act and with it fostered the creation of the nation’s first “illegal” race. For the first time, Federal law proscribed entry of an entire ethnic working group on the premise that the presence of Chinese in America “endangers the good order of certain localities within the territory.”

The act effectively halted all Chinese immigration for a minimum period of ten years, barring any Chinese laborer from coming to the United States and forbidding all federal, state, and local courts from admitting Chinese to citizenship.

With the passage of the act, America entered into the era of Chinese exclusion. The act, renewed and amended in 1892,1902, 1904, 1917 and 1924, ushered in immigration restrictions based on race and nationality that would endure for more than half a century.

The nation’s restrictive immigration policies created invisible borders, much larger than physical ones, that narrowed desirable races into subgroups eligible for citizenship. There was a sense that the American identity deserved protection, that it was somehow under threat, and government agencies were created and funded to aid in such protection. The exclusion era, as historian Roger Daniels wrote, was “a time when nativism and racism gained strength and acceptance at all levels of society.”

I see echoes of the past today, when Trump tweets that open borders bring “large scale crime and disease.” The belief that immigrants bring crime to the country has continuously been disproven, but the fear that they bring disease seems harder to shake.

landmark study from 2018 found that immigrants don’t bring disease into their new countries. In fact, the researchers found that an increasing immigrant population correlated with healthier host countries.

It’s clear the coronavirus needs to be taken seriously, as does every global public health concern. What’s also clear to me is that we, as a nation, have a troubled history of conflating fear of maladies with fear of migrants. I don’t want to see us fall into that trap again.


About the Author 

Adrienne Berard is an award-winning journalist and graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. She has been the Writer-in-Residence at Delta State University in Mississippi and currently works in research communications for William & Mary in Virginia. She is the author of Water Tossing Boulders: How a Family of Chinese Immigrants Led the First Fight to Desegregate Schools in the Jim Crow South. Connect with her at and follow her on Twitter at @AdrienneBerard.