Issue 41 / 3 November 2014

IN 1881, the young son of a Chinese merchant in Sydney fell ill with the much-feared disease of smallpox.

The succeeding outbreak caused widespread panic well out of proportion to its actual impact, as historian Garry Wotherspoon has documented. In 1881‒82, there were 163 cases of smallpox in Sydney and 41 people died — hardly a huge toll in the context of 19th century public health.

But infectious disease and racial politics have always created a potent mix. In 1881, anti-Chinese feeling spread more quickly than the virus, leading to fiery letters to the newspapers, attacks in the street and government moves to stop all ships and immigration from China.

A ship carrying 450 perfectly healthy immigrants from China was compulsorily quarantined under conditions described as “unnecessarily vexatious”, a move the colonial government admitted was intended to warn off other intending immigrants.

All this despite the fact that the disease was most likely imported from Europe, as urologist turned medical historian Dr Greg Watters has written.

But who cares about evidence when there’s a big nasty disease out there and it might be coming from somewhere foreign?

Not our Australian Government apparently, nor some others around the world, whose response to the current Ebola crisis seems motivated more by fear than reason.

The head of the WHO, Dr Margaret Chan, was unusually outspoken last week in criticising Australia’s announcement of restrictions on travel from West African countries, including suspension of visa processing even in humanitarian cases.

“We have learned from past experience managing many, many outbreaks that travel bans will not stop cases coming to your borders”, Dr Chan said.

Rather than trying to restrict movements, countries should be upping their surveillance and preparedness to deal with any cases that did occur, she said.

“People are sometimes under pressure, governments are under pressure, to just follow suit. We need to do our utmost to curtail unnecessary actions that will cause further damage.”

Some fear travel bans and unreasonable quarantine requirements will impede efforts to contain the outbreak.

“Anything that will dissuade foreign-trained personnel from coming here to West Africa and joining us on the frontline to fight the fight would be very, very unfortunate”, the head of the UN’s emergency response mission said last week from the Ghanaian capital, Accra.

Australian microbiologist Professor Tim Inglis is not alone in arguing the best way for developed nations such as Australia to protect themselves from Ebola is not to attempt to isolate themselves but to contribute to those containment efforts on the ground.

“The real issue is that the threat to Australia, the United States and other developed countries will be much higher in six months”, he wrote in Nature last week. “The best defence is to act now and in Africa.”

We can only hope.

Sadly, there is a long history of isolationism in the Australian response to infectious disease, as illustrated by the 1881 panic over smallpox.

That outbreak has been credited with helping to inspire the appalling White Australia Policy.

It is also thought to have marked the beginnings of a coordinated public health system in this country, with doctors employed to combat the crisis at a rate of 3.5 guineas a day, plus buggy, horse and forage.

Let’s hope something equally positive comes out of the tragedy that is Ebola.

Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.


Do you support the Australian Government’s response to the Ebola crisis in West Africa?
  • No – it's isolationist (56%, 61 Votes)
  • Yes – it’s protecting us (24%, 26 Votes)
  • Maybe – it’s a difficult problem (20%, 22 Votes)

Total Voters: 109

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3 thoughts on “Jane McCredie: History repeats

  1. Farmey Joseph says:

    For centuries now, communities all over the world have practiced quarantine as a vital measure to control the spread of infectious disease.  Suddenly, in 2014, we have decided that quarantine is actually “racial politics” and the most evil thing ever.  Thanks to our comrades at MJA Insight for yet another compelling piece of moral pontification.

  2. Jonathon Singleton says:

    Oct 20, the EU FAC declared international health workers who became EVD infected would be provided with appropriate care. You Haven’t Done Nothin is a Stevie Wonder song which characterises Abbott Government’s EVD response.   Tim Inglis’ rational science stance has been reiterated by others (below).  Doing little in West Africa to halt disease transmission (driving genome mutation) has consequences eg, health system capabilities and capacities of much of the Asia-Pacific region would not be able to cope with multiple “sparking” EVD outbreaks.  Indian Journal of Youth and Adolescent Health  — “Ebola Virus Disease (EVD): Indian Preparedness to the Public Health Emergency” By Dr. Tanu Anand, Dr. Jugal Kishore, Dr. G.K Ingle, Department of Community Medicine, Maulana Azad Medical College, New Delhi.   An American science writer recently analysed an essay, “Ebola: Failures of Imagination” by Jody Lanard and Peter Sandman, two risk-communication experts.  There’s an important conversation which needs to take place.  I really hope that conversation occurs at the G20 meeting this month.  Wired Dot Com — “The Grim Future if Ebola Goes Global” By Maryn McKenna (October 27, 2014)  

  3. Greg Watters says:

    The point of the article, Geraldo, is that  while quarantine may be a useful public health measure it has  always had a racial context. Epidemics cause panic and require a scapegoat against which the population can direct its anger and fear. The exsistence of the scapegoat also assures a population that their society is fundamentally sound and that any contamination has come from an outside ‘other’. Quarantine is a powerful tool in reinforcing these messages.

    During the epidemic of 1881/2  the NSW Premier Sir Henry Parkes used the Chinese as a scapegoat, at least in part,  to hide the deficiencies of his government’s public health responses; an excellent example of the political manipulation of racial fears. Fortunately the press and a number of parliamentarians realised the rouse and supported the Chinese. Parkes reputation consequently suffered.

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