Our contemporary national immersion in the COVID-19 pandemic and racism protests calls to mind events in U.S. history. The 2020 pandemic has produced dire effects on world economies. Serious as it is, the death toll approaching 200,000 pales with the US and worldwide toll of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. Less well-known is the devastating multi-disease pandemic which wiped out a majority of native Americans following Columbus’ discovery of the New World. Up to 90% of native Americans perished from pathogens initially transported to the New World by explorers and settlers—a human tragedy of horrifying dimensions.
If readers were quizzed on themes dominating the news cycles of 2020, most respondents would place COVID-19 and racism at the top of their lists. Coronaviruses have been known for many years, but other virus types have garnered more attention. The crowned virus has become an icon of today’s coronavirus conversation—a symbol of public focus on the life-changing pandemic dominating our contemporary lives. The relationship of the COVID-19 phenomenon and racism is a difficult topic, but worthy of our attention. Protests against racism and related discrimination have unfortunately morphed into disorder and violence.
When the novel COVID-19 virus originated in China, many people accused analysts who highlighted its geographic origin as being racist or xenophobic. Accusations of racism are manifest in other spheres. For example, people abhor aggressive, unjust law enforcement questioning, and worse, disproportionate deaths of criminal suspects detained by police officers. We are thankful such incidents are unusual and rare. In our day racism is linked with a wide variety of humanity’s problems. We are thankful national civil rights legislation of the 1960s prohibited forms of legal racism. We pray that inherent racism would also be suppressed. This sort of racism and discrimination does not disappear by legislation—it depends on a divine miracle in the human heart.
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Old World explorers from Spain, France, England, Portugal, and The Netherlands possessed a variety of motivations when they boarded their vessels for trans-oceanic travel to the west. Historians have narrowed the goals of Old World explorers to the “three Gs”—God, gold, and glory. They desired a quick western route to the Far East but New World continents blocked their way. Exploitation of New World riches compensated for their disappointment at failing to find a better route to eastern Asia. Some European explorer/missionaries were intent on Christianizing the natives they physically contacted. Some missionaries denounced all forms of oppression and enslavement of indigenous peoples. Other explorers promoted national imperialism and their missionary zeal was non-existent. The character of human nature, much of it negative and self-serving, worked in diverse ways to disrupt the quality of life of indigenous populations.
Hundreds of written resources document the abuses indigenous Americans suffered at the hands of post-Columbian explorers and early settlers since 1492. Deliberately or not, the Old World immigrants brought devastating pathogens to indigenous New World populations. While arrivals from the Old World possessed some immunity to smallpox, measles, typhoid, plague, malaria, influenza, and a host of other diseases in their native lands, native populations in the Americas had no immunity because they had never been exposed to these diseases. This phenomenon has been dubbed the “virgin soil epidemic.” Consequently, the population of Mexico, Central America, and South America declined from 50 million (some historians estimate much larger figures) to a mere 1 to 2 million. Diseases also struck less populous Native Americans in the north.
Superimposed upon many explorers’ desires for God, gold, and glory was an inherent desire to exploit, steal from, and displace native populations for their own personal benefit. The horrible trade in human slaves was often perpetuated by unscrupulous, money-loving merchants. The slavery phenomenon was related to acquisition of cheap labor and consequent wealth, not to mention its moral injustice. Such merchants did not care about the justice or appropriateness of how they accumulated their wealth. They cared only that they acquired wealth. The unpleasant history of slavery in the New World is complex and disturbing. The slavery issue was a hemisphere-wide problem. Its link to racism is difficult to deny.
The modern COVID-19 disease stokes fear of infection in 2020, especially for older residents. We are reminded that past pandemics are named for geographic regions, whether or not their origin is established as true beyond all doubt. In this way we understand that some could assign a racial component to COVID-19. In studying the science of viruses, we understand the topic has many ramifications, especially if the virus is invasive on a worldwide scale. (We recommend readers review our last three posts on invasive species by clicking 3X on the “Older Post” link.)
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Research on Native Americans and their susceptibility to viruses and racism called our attention to a tidbit of personal family history. Readers of our blog are fascinated with stories of their ancestors. So it is with my paternal ancestors: The Virkler family arrived in Northern New York State in 1834 from Switzerland. The region is now in Lewis County. Rudolph Virkler, his wife, and seven sons arrived after an ocean journey of more than a month. They were devout Christians attempting to escape the abuses of the state church and military conscription.
When they arrived in the New World they traversed many routes to their eventual homes in Northern New York State. In the case of the Virkler family, they settled in the neighborhood of the Oneidas, one of six nations of the Native American Iroquois Confederacy. One particular inspiring family story has been preserved. During the time of this event, Indian tribes were being moved to lands west of the Mississippi River under terms of the “Indian Removal Act” of 1830. The Virkler family made their livelihood from farm land carved from the native forest in the years to follow. Other families who also immigrated to Northern New York State from Europe lived in the same region.
Not all Oneida Indians were willingly removed to lands farther west. Some of them were subjects of a story told by my paternal great-grandmother (1854-1936). Her mother, my great-great-grandmother (1818-1895), had told her daughter about Oneida Indians who visited their wilderness home “…..and were very friendly. Her mother gave them food to eat. They would lie on the floor, their coats rolled up for a pillow, and stretch their feet toward the fireplace making themselves very much at home.” (Genealogies of Three Large Families of Lewis County, New York, p. 143)
The family story above has its setting within the complex history of our country. Sadly, this history is fraught with stories of struggles against hardship and disease as well as battles with racism and discrimination. God looks down knowingly, mindful that “We are but dust” (Psalm 103:14 ESV). Verse 14 follows in the context of Psalm 103:3: God “forgives all your iniquity” and “heals all your diseases.” The psalmist, referencing “all your iniquities,” may refer to racism. Among “all your diseases,” he may refer to viral diseases like COVID-19, illnesses like smallpox and many others which decimated native populations in the New World.
Ultimately, these conditions will be banished and tears wiped away in the new heaven and new earth described in Revelation 21-22. This is the ultimate deliverance God provides for those redeemed by His Son.