By Juliet Wagner (Regular Contributor)
“They make people uncomfortable. We don’t know what they think, how they think, what they do…so…they are going to make us unsafe. Sometimes they will do things that you don’t think they will do and then we will be in trouble…”
In Neill Blomkamp’s short film, Alive in Joburg (2005), which inspired his later blockbuster, District 9, a man shares this observation in a documentary–style interview. In the film, he is describing stranded aliens, who live in slum-like conditions in Johannesburg. An elderly lady complains that their arrival brought rape and crime, and a butcher mans his stall wearing a bulletproof vest, to protect himself and his meat from violent attack.
The apartheid context is an obvious subject of the film, but it addresses xenophobia as well as racism: the script for Alive in Joburg was based on interviews with South Africans about Zimbabwean and Nigerian immigrants. The filming of District 9, released in 2009, was disrupted by anti-Zimbabwean riots in response to an outbreak of cholera in Zimbabwe in 2008. Concerns that Zimbabweans might bring disease into South Africa led to calls for the border to be closed and for Zimbabweans to be denied entry into the county, a call that was echoed in many countries globally in response to the Ebola outbreak in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone in 2014.
Although it was established in the mid-nineteenth-century that cholera was waterborne, the associated stigma remained prevalent, and misguided policies of isolating sufferers and suspected carriers continued. In her book, Gypsies in Germany and Italy, 1861-1914: lives outside the law, Jennifer Iluzzi describes how an outbreak of cholera in Apulia in 1910 became a premise to justify the mistreatment and deportation of “gypsies” who could not prove Italian provenance. In August 1910, the group of “Russian Gypsies” blamed for the outbreak in Apulia was reportedly isolated on boat in the Adriatic, where they were being “maintained” by the authorities, who had burned all of their possessions and food. Even after this measure failed to slow the epidemic, the accusation of spreading cholera was still employed to accelerate the expulsion of people identified as zingari.
While visiting aliens remain a fiction, invading viruses and bacteria are ubiquitous and multiplying. There is a long tradition in modern history of identifying individuals with a pathogen they purportedly carry and using the rhetoric of hygiene to justify their exclusion. The international panic seeded by Ebola and the suspicion under which infected travelers fell are a reminder of how powerful that impulse remains.
For more on policies toward Gypsies in Italy and Germany, see:
Jennifer Illuzzi, Gypsies in Germany and Italy, 1861-1914: lives outside the law (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan, 2014)