Professor Tahseen Shams was recently featured in the first episode of Migrations: A World on the Move Podcast, titled Pandemics. In this episode, Professor Shams spoke with host Eleanor Paynter and guests Dr. Gunisha Kaur and Dr. Katie Fiorella on the topic of how the COVID-19 pandemic has shaped our understanding of borders and migration.
Professor Shams discussed the history of migrants being blamed for global epidemics, including the blaming of the Irish immigrants for cholera, Chinese immigrants for the bubonic plague, and Haitian refugees for AIDS. These narratives perpetuate fear of migrants in the U.S. society and justify border restrictions that hurt vulnerable immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Contrarily, immigrants and refugees rarely travel compared to frequent tourists and business travellers. This has shown its effects during the COVID-19 pandemic as cruise ships continued to sail for weeks and help spread coronavirus around the world.
Professor Tahseen Shams is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto with teaching responsibilities on the St. George campus. Her research interests are in the areas of international migration, globalization, race/ethnicity, nationalism, and religion. Her book, Here, There, and Elsewhere: The Making of Immigrant Identities in a Globalized World was released earlier in 2020.
We’ve included a transcript excerpt from Professor Tahseen Sham’s discussion below. The complete episode, Pandemics, can be found here.
Migrations: A Global Grand Challenge
Tahseen Shams: “The United States has, in fact, a long historical precedent in immigrant scaremongering in the face of global epidemics. Immigrants have been associated with diseases and have been perceived to threaten and contaminate the health of the American nation. We see, for instance, in the 1800s that Irish immigrants were blamed for bringing cholera to the United States. Italian immigrants for bringing polio and Jews for tuberculosis. In the 1900s, Chinese immigrants were similarly accused of spreading the bubonic plague. When the influx of Haitian refugees in the 1980s coincided with the AIDS epidemic, we saw that Haitians and Africans were blamed for the disease. Today in the context of the COVID-19 crisis, the coronavirus—having believed to originate in China—is feeding into pre-existing anti-Chinese racism. It’s not something that suddenly has emerged because of the COVID-19 pandemic. And this is despite the fact that the virus that actually led to the outbreak in New York, which has had the largest U.S. death toll thus far, actually came from Europe.”