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Reflection: Fears concerning the H1N1 virus have led to discrimination

Saulo Padilla and Cathryn Clinton
May 19, 2009

AKRON, Pa. – There are growing signs that fear and misinformation concerning the H1N1 (swine flu) virus are leading to discrimination against immigrants in the United States.

In the past few weeks, several anti-immigrant groups have used public health concerns to stir up prejudice. Radio talk shows have suggested closing the border, stopping immigration and travel from Mexico, and even that "illegal aliens" are entering the nation with this "Mexican" virus planted by terrorists.

We all should continue to take appropriate action to control the spread of the virus, but at the same time church members should discuss the historical and current fears and assumptions that plague our society. We should strive to ensure that Christ's compassion and welcome, not prejudice, infuse our congregations and communities.

The Bible relates that Jesus compassionately reached out to an "untouchable" and "incurable" person, and to other "strangers" in his world who were marginalized because of nationalistic and sexist boundaries, such as the Samaritan and the Syrophoenician women. These people were welcomed, restored personally and in their communities, and healed. In the name of Christ, can the church do less?

One misrepresentation of facts is that immigrants are the only ones bringing the H1N1 virus to the U.S. However, U.S. tourists and visitors to Mexico have also carried the virus home.

Another idea is that the virus is "Mexican" in origin, thus disparaging Mexicans. According to Michael Shaw, a microbiologist with the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Disease, the new H1N1 flu strain and some of the circulatory, seasonal human flu viruses can be traced back to the H1N1 virus that sparked the 1918 flu pandemic. Random mutation can change the virus, meaning H1N1 viruses can look and behave differently.

Epidemics often release the latent need to blame. Due to prejudice and racism, this blame often targets immigrant and minority populations.

History reveals this pattern. The medieval Europeans blamed Jews during the Black Plague and a cholera pandemic. In the beginning stages of the HIV/AIDS virus, Haitians and gay men were labeled as socially undesirable. In 2003, the H5N1 virus known as SARS or bird flu stigmatized Asians, especially the Chinese.

Blame and fear are dangerous and counterproductive during disease outbreaks. The stigmatized will be more reluctant to seek medical care, which could help to propagate the sickness.

Howard Markel, medical historian and author of the book, When Germs Travel: Six Major Epidemics That Have Invaded America Since 1900 and the Fears They Have Unleashed, says that "the human race is simply too interconnected to rely on walls and borders as public health safeguards … Quarantines, cordons sanitaires, immigration depots, and long inspection lines all represent a past era's responses to the containment of contagion."

As an alternative to closing borders and discriminating, all of us can actively promote long-range permanent prevention and treatment strategies and public health education, not only for ourselves, but for everyone in the world.

As Markel says, "in public health terms, every city is a 'sister city' with every other metropolis on earth."

The MCC U.S. Washington Office encourages congregations and individuals to write letters to the editors of their local newspapers to reveal misinformation and actions that marginalize any group.

Congregations and individuals will find resources on immigration, anti-racism and advocacy on the MCC U.S. website, mcc.org/us/programs. These resources can help people reflect on a Christian response to discrimination against immigrants.

MCC U.S. invites churches and individuals to take precautions to control propagation of the H1N1 virus, educate themselves, dispel misinformation that leads to discrimination and use prayer and theological reflections on hospitality to inform responses.