Question of the Month - April

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H-Nationalism’s Question of the Month series offers a forum for discussing the big questions surrounding research, pedagogy, and practice in the field of nationalism studies and the history of nationalism. Use the reply feature to join the conversation! Email Simon Purdue ( of Northeastern University if you’d like to propose a question of you own. If you need technical assistance with logging in and posting comments, please contact H-Net’s Help Desk (  

Hello all,

I hope this post finds you well. These are challenging days indeed and we hope that you have all stayed healthy and safe in these trying times. We have decided to focus this month on the issue at hand. With that in mind we are asking:

Given the current global crisis surrounding Covid-19, we have found ourselves pondering the relationship between nationalism and "natural catastrophe," whether environmental, epidemic, or otherwise. What do nationalism scholars need to know about this subject? Is there a main body of literature? Do we have robust studies of, say, the 1918 pandemic and nationalism? What other historical episodes or topics warrant discussion from nationalism scholars? Is there literature on the nexus of disease and nationalism? What readings would you all suggest?

We look forward to hearing what you all think about this very relevant topic, and as always please share widely.

Best wishes, and stay well,

Simon Purdue

Series Editor


Dear All, 

As I read this month's question, I was reminded of the opening of Laura Spinney's Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World (Public Affairs, 2017), which I read before the current pandemic. It included what I thought was a very interesting if brief reference to Terence Ranger's work, particularly concerning how we, as authors, narrate events and how they were experienced and remembered. In place of a unitary plot line of the 1918 pandemic, Spinney stressed the overlapping repetitions of her account of it, noting that this aligned with how people who suffer through such events tell and re-tell their stories of it, and work and rework ideas (p. 5). I'll admit that's not a fully fledged answer to this question, but it did get me thinking. 

Best wishes, 

Dave Prior 

This month’s question is certainly intriguing. At first I thought that I had nothing to offer here. However, I did have a number of questions and some thoughts that might be of interest.
I am interested in how ethnic groups (usually in the minority) are demonised in times of crisis and wondered if there was a link between infectious disease and demonisation. One example is that of Mary Mallon (described in the popular media in early twentieth century United Sates as ‘Typhoid Mary’). Although her behaviour was sometimes extreme and she denied that she was a carrier of typhoid, she was an asymptomatic carrier. However, what I would be interested in is how she was pursued (quite rightly from a health point of view) and whether her ethnicity (and/or her class and gender) had an impact on how she was treated.
Is there any literature that traces how she was portrayed and whether her Irishness was a feature of this?
Looking at the current crisis, ethnicity and xenophobia have been part of the response to it. In India, Muslims have been blamed by Hindu nationalists for introducing the coronavirus into India. There has been talk of a corona Jihad and of corona-terrorism.
Similarly, right wing politicians in Europe have used the virus to promote an anti-immigrant agenda, suggesting that it is immigrants who have carried the virus into Europe. This allows them to promote the closing of borders and placing further restrictions on migration from outside the European Union.
More generally and impressionistically, Africans in China have been blamed for the virus and in Britain Chinese residents have reported hostility from their neighbours and in the streets.
Is there a literature on responses to pandemics and contagion that focus on this form of ‘othering’? I am not familiar with this area and it would be very interesting if colleagues could suggest sources.
A further thought is that the crisis has enhanced nationalist responses to the virus. The European Commission has apologised to Italy for the selfish way individual European states responded to the Italian crisis at first. It is likely that the continuation of the crisis will lead to less collaboration between states in Europe and elsewhere. States will want to control the supply chain for essential medical products and bring it neared to home, rather than depend on China or other producers. In the past major crises have tended to undermine international cooperation, when the solution to the problem is often represented in global terms. Will the crisis lead to further protectionism and prioritising each state’s citizens over others?
The United Kingdom has taken an overtly political position on this. When the Prime Minister’s Office was asked if there would be a delay in leaving the European Union as a result of the coronavirus, the answer was a definite no. It was argued that the UK would be in a better position to defend its citizens outside the EU and free of the regulations and institutions of that body. A leader of the Catalan nationalist movement has also claimed that an independent Catalonia would have been in a better position to protect the region.
It is likely that these sentiments will be shared by other politicians, even those who do not endorse an explicitly nationalist agenda.

Dear Brian,

Regarding 'othering' of the virus, a lovely study in "AIDS and Its Metaphors" (1989) by Susan Sontag. It seems it was the 3rd chapter where she describes the same mechanisms that you mentioned - the projection of epidemic disease abroad, on immigrants, different classes and social groups.

The entanglements between epidemics and nationalism are manifold. Nationalism is predicated on a deep, almost anthropological sense of keeping the community’s inner space “pure” in what is conceived as a contaminating world (cf. Mary Douglas’s classic “Purity and danger”). Heraclitus already, in stating that "we need to defend our laws as if they were our city walls”, equated internal order with external protection. Hence cross-border traffic, be it in the shape of human mobility, goods, or influences, is always eyed with suspicion. The very notion of an “epidemic” will therefore easily lead into a logic of border closures and quarantines; indeed this practice (the "q"-word is named after the 40 days’ period of isolation in which foreign arrivals were kept during times of epidemic disease) antedates the rise of nationalism proper.
The tendency to scapegoat non-territorial groups is likewise a long-standing reflex, as pogroms during medieval plagues show. Notoriously, the 1830s cholera epidemic scapegoated both Jews and Jesuits (a distrust combination that foreshadows the vilification of George Soros). We can see how nationalism exacerbates this "puritiy and danger" reflex in modern times. Radical measures predicated on isolation and eradication were bolstered by the advances of virology in animal diseases (Pasteur on hydrophobia, leading to Britain’s dog quarantine policy; Löffler and Frisch on foot-and-mouth-disease).
Quite a different link between the current epidemic and nationalism is noticeable in government communication, rhetoric and propaganda. Difficult measures and policies are "sold" to the public with the aid of nationalist propaganda: "we" can weather this crisis by channelling the inner strengths and traditions that are "native" to us as a nation, and in accord with our national character. Collective-psychological master narratives are getting fresh traction: the Dutch as being collectiely sensible but averse to coercison, and in danger of being a bit antisocial; the English as muddling on through with dogged determination and thee Spirit of Dunkirk; the US finding it difficult to impose coercive measures because of a libertarian pioneer spirit, but happy to withdraw into isolationism. The rhetoric of heads of government and heads of state in their public addresses makes for fascination discourse analysis.
This type of rhetoric erodes internationalism or multilateralism, as the tiffs within the EU between Italy and Holland over "corona bonds" shows, or Donald Trump’s campaign against the World Health Organization.

responding to Brian Girvin: 

I am no specialist on pandemics but as a specialist on immigration, I do know how common this kind of othering is and I can provide some background readings and a few personal insights based on family history.

For histories of U.S. immigration and health issues, first see Alan Kraut, Silent Travelers: Germs, Genes and the “Immigrant Menace.” (1994)

Historian Judith Walzer Leavitt (Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public's Health, 1996) has written most convincingly on how gender, class, ethnicity shaped the public response to Mary "Typhoid Mary" Mallon. Leavitt is especially good at showing how Mallon's status as female and single shaped public stigmatization of her, and her alone.

There were many healthy typhoid carriers identified after Mallon in early twentieth century New York. Most of them were married men. None came to symbolize the public health threat in the way that Mallon did.

My great-grandfather Frederick Moersch was identified as a healthy typhoid carrier some time around 1913 or 1914. He was a German immigrant candy and ice cream maker; beginning in 1905 he had operated his own small businesses in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Once identified, Moersch was told not to work in food service. Census listings for 1915, 1920, 1925 showed him ignoring that warning--although thereafter he worked only as a lowly employee in various soda and candy stores in Brooklyn and his family depended at times on charity. 

More than a decade later, in 1928, and responding to the early widowhood of his oldest daughter (my grandmother, who had two very young children) Moersch and daughter used the deceased husband's insurance payment to open an ice cream "parlor" in New York's Greenwich Village. Moersch  almost immediately caused a small typhoid outbreak, was again apprehended by the Department of Health, and was also briefly stigmatized in local newspapers as "Typhoid Freddie." It was a very brief moment of public notoriety although it had grave consequences for him and his family. Moersch was then sent to live in the same hospital with Mary Mallon at Riverside Hospital on Brother's Island but he was also allowed the fiction (reported to subsequent census takers) that he was a worker in the hospital, where he remained until shortly before his death in 1947.

During their confinements, both Moersch and Mallon were allowed to leave Riverside Hospital for visits with family and friends. Moersch made candy for his grandchildren during his annual visits. Since no one in the family ever became sick as a result, his children and grandchildren refused to believe he had health problems. The family story, relayed across generations by his daughter, my much loved grandmother, was that Moersch had been "framed" by Tammany Hall. I have never found any evidence to confirm that report. 

Donna Gabaccia Professor Emerita, University of Toronto    

In response to Joep Leerssen’s thoughtful and very well expressed post, national identity has indeed emerged in different forms in various pandemic and post-pandemic contexts. In this post, I limit my reflections to the current situation (I will perhaps add references to the historical record in a subsequent post). 

In the Italian ‘epicentre’, a new pride of nationhood has unexpectedly emerged in the first days of lockdown, expressed through impromptu flash mobs and other creative endeavours. For instance, spontaneous outbursts of forgotten musicality provided new ways to rebuild segregated communities from within the lockdown – as if the natural reaction was to embrace one’s neighbours, and thus the entire world, through songs from a distance.

While it is difficult to speculate on a situation which is rapidly changing and evolving at a breathtaking pace, a twist of perspective can help to redefine the problem.

In many countries, the immediate response to the current crisis has been to concentrate powers in the hands of the ‘nation-state’, as often occurs during ‘states of exception’.  In Europe, the nation-state has assumed, willy-nilly, a new protagonism as inter-state boundaries have been raised, revamped and enhanced. Given the urgency of the crisis, a sort of centralisation of decision-making power has been difficult to avoid. But in extreme cases, such as India and Hungary, authoritarian regimes have seized the situation to dramatically reduce citizens' rights and freedoms and introduce new levels of authoritarianism. Here, ‘biopolitics’ has been turned into a weapon to concentrate power in the hands of a small elite. 

Yet there have been bizarre exceptions: in the USA, federalism provided the backdrop for a decentralised laissez faire politics. Riding on a rollercoaster of contradictions, President Trump decided to remove his leadership from responsibility by delegating to states and localities crucial decisions on whether or not to adopt their own lockdown measures. This happened at a critical moment when cohesive coordination was urgently needed to prevent more deaths. Similar non-decisions were taken by Brazil's incumbent President as the contagion spiralled out of control. Both surmised that saving the economy was more important than saving lives.

All governments reacted late, but many introduced drastic measures, treating citizens as if they were a single homogeneous entity. In the earliest phase, governments played down the sharp differences that exist between classes, ethnicities and localities. Some seemed to pay no attention to the fact that millions of people around the world depend on mobility to survive. In Spain, restrictions were uniformly applied, including people whose food and subsistence depend on accessing more or less distant plots of land (comprising urban and peri-urban agriculture). In India, people were confronted with a completely unanticipated 'national' lockdown without any advice. In Kenya and other African countries, supply routes have been disrupted and agricultural production jeopardised. In megacities, suburbs and shanty towns throughout the world, hunger has become a familiar visitor. This lack of attention to local detail and needs has condemned many to possible starvation. And many of these areas had already been badly affected by climate change, the ultimate form of (human-induced) global homogenisation. 

There is no  requirement that the transition to the post-pandemic order will continue to follow standardised paths emanating from central power. A degree of decentralisation was to be expected as local relaxation measures are introduced in response to different levels of health improvement, decontamination and de-escalation.

However, this does not necessarily bode well. Once the lockdown is over, a critical moment of vulnerability will emerge for minorities: in countries where power politics was already shaped by nationalism, xenophobic episodes may multiply during post-pandemic transition. 

It is not only African students and Uighur minorities in China who suffer. In India, Muslims have also been targeted and rendered more vulnerable, while local media are ripe with conjectures about China using the virus as a bioweapon. In the USA, citizens of Asian descent (and China as a whole) have become the favoured targets for an inept administration. Elsewhere, specific classes and professions have been harassed and attacked, such as nurses and doctors in Mexico. 

Distortions, fake news, misinformation, defamation, online gossip and paranoid fantasies provide a fertile ground for dangerous forms of intolerance and mass violence. 

The whole scenario reveals a fundamental underlying problem: growing inequality accompanied by rapid impoverishment. This condition provides the breeding ground for extremism, rooted in pre-existing inequalities and ethnic intolerance which are, in turn, likely to usher in more inequalities. 

In terms of political choices and policy-making, the need to address social justice may become a central aspect in any post-pandemic transition. Will this require rethinking the neoliberal economic model we have passively accepted over the last 40 years? It was this model, after all, that caused widespread economic disparities and, most profoundly, unprecedented environmental degradation in the form of the current climate emergency (inequality, nationalism and climate change are intimately related, see my recent article: ‘The Ultimate Challenge: Nationalism and Climate Change’)


Hello all,

Many thanks for your fantastic contributions this month. It seems more important than ever to discuss and attempt to understand the intersection of nationalism and catastrophe, and it is clear that this will be an area of scholarly focus in years to come.

Your comments this month have made it clear that nationalism often presents its most ugly face in times of crisis, and that during crises such as the one we are currently living through it is often minority populations or other 'out-groups' who feel the heat of nationalist rhetoric and action. Whether it be the demonisation of the LGBTQ population during the AIDS epidemic, the blaming of immigrant women during New York's typhoid outbreaks or the current surge in anti-Asian violence, vulnerable populations have consistently seen the brunt of the blame-culture that often rides alongside nationalist thought. Furthermore, we have seen that natural catastrophes often exacerbate existing communal or inter-ethnic tensions, fuelling xenophobia and on occasion even leading to war.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve and play out, scholars of nationalism will be paying close attention to the historical patterns and current trends in nationalist rhetoric and action. No doubt a wealth of scholarship will emerge in this field in months and years to come.

As always, please stay safe and well, and we look forward to publishing our next QOTM post tomorrow, on what will be the 1 year anniversary of the series' launch.

Best wishes,

Simon Purdue
Series Editor

The Covid-19 pandemic has galvanized old national stereotypes and cultural patterns. A hundred years ago, in the 1920s, associations of national hygiene were established to safeguard the health of the nation against diseases and undesirable internal and external aliens. Current biopolitics echoes some of these historical links between hygiene and nationalism. At the outbreak of the Covid crisis, deeply ingrained and often unconscious narratives emerged and have been used to “protect” the health of the nation against groups identified as infiltrators of the virus. In Europe minority groups, especially the Roma and immigrants, were singled out as main culprits. Extreme policing and discriminatory practices have been pervasive. To mention only two examples: Hungary expelled a number of Iranian medical students who were infected with SARS-Cov-2 and allegedly showed unruly behavior in the quarantine. In Romania, Slovakia, and Serbia, extreme policing against the Roma has been rampant. The Roma and traveler communities have also been harassed in the UK and Ireland. The Roma, who were exposed to systemic discrimination before the pandemic and have virtually no access to clean water and basic hygiene facilities, were blamed yet again for endangering the nation’s health. A colleague of mine and I wrote a piece a few weeks ago about the early nationalist responses to the crisis: .

I am studying the case of the Roma during this pandemic, mainly focusing on the Balkans and the UK. I would be very grateful for any information about their situation in Spain or other countries.

Dear Krisztina,

I have tangentially followed the situation of  Roma communities in Spain. There have been several 'bulos', online fake news, about specific dangers associated with the Gitanos. 
Following a funeral in Victoria, a local Gitano community was subjected to one of the first lockdowns in Spain. Immediately afterwards, fake news circulated about law-breaking actions posing dangers emanating from this community. Most messages concerned the alleged 'unruly behaviour' in the quarantine.

Particularly suffering during these circumstances are, of course, Travelling communities. But the problem is, of course, much more serious. 
A research group in the University of St Andrews and the Universidad de Alicante, is conducting research in this area, warning about the dire consequences of health inequalities in Gitano communities (

Dear Daniele and Cristian, thanks very much! These are all wonderfully useful information. I've been planning to write an article about the discrimination against Roma communities in Europe during the pandemic, focusing on the rhetoric and representation in the various countries, also taking in account the posts and responses on digital media. It would be useful to have co-authors for such a large-scale project. So if anybody is interested in this or would like to work together, please get in touch with me at Have a nice weekend and thanks again for the comments! Krisztina