Season 1, Episode 4

Pandemics and Borders

In “Pandemics & Borders”, Aneerudh, a 19-year-old student, decides he will travel to his Canadian university campus for his second year, but faces a stringent travel ban that’s based on border control policies that have troubling colonial origins.

We examine the world’s responses to the Covid19 pandemic, and trace one of the origin points to European colonialism. Particularly the actions of Europe when faced with a devastating cholera pandemic in the 19th century.

Beginning in 1817, seven waves of cholera washed across the world. Tens of millions of people died, but the greatest casualty was in India. So it is little surprise that the harshest measures to curb the disease were also enacted in India. The measures had little to do with improve the public health infrastructure, water or sanitation systems. Rather, they focused on increased surveillance and policing to draw lines between the diseased and the “normal” — sometimes even without proof of disease.

This is the brave new world people in much of the Global South are living in during the Covid19 pandemic as well. The world has segregated into the unvaccinated and the vaccinated, into the Global South and the North, into mostly people of colour and mostly white folks. The former groups are treated with the same restrictions as the diseased.

This wasn’t the case just a short while ago when all the world was waiting for vaccine access; at that time, travel was roughly equally restricted based on RT-PCR tests and quarantine protocols. Now, there are categories of privilege based on vaccine certificates that the World Health Organization says are inequitable.

So, let’s learn what happened in the 19th century and the colonial logics that resulted in border control which are in place even today.


Time Markers (mins: sec)

  • 00:12 — Chapter 1: Nightmare at Frankfurt Airport
    9:00 — Intro — what the episode is about
    10:22 — Chapter 2: Pandemic
    12:17 — Story: Cholera outbreak in Jessore
    15:47 — Chapter 3: Race
    21:14 — Chapter 4: Surveillance
    24:00 — Story: Outbreak at the Kumbh Mela
    27:25 — Story: Quarantine of Hajj pilgrim at Kamara’an island
    30:40 — Chapter 5: Borders (Conclusion)
    35:30 — Credits

Reading List

About IHR. World Health Organization. Published October 4, 2017. Accessed July 13, 2020.

Arnold D. Colonizing the Body: State Medicine and Epidemic Disease in Nineteenth-Century India. Berkeley: University of California Press; 2002.

Arnold D. The Indian Ocean as a disease zone, 1500–1950.†. South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies. 1991;14(2):1-21. doi:10.1080/00856409108723152

Bynum W. F. (1993). Policing hearts of darkness: aspects of the international sanitary conferences. History and philosophy of the life sciences, 15(3), 421–434.

Frerichs RR. John Snow and the Broad Street Pump: On the Trail of an Epidemic. Published 2003. Accessed July 13, 2020.

Harrison M. A Dreadful Scourge: Cholera in early nineteenth-century India. Modern Asian Studies. 2019;54(2):502-553. doi:10.1017/s0026749x17001032

Huber V. The Unification Of The Globe By Disease? The International Sanitary Conferences On Cholera, 1851–1894. The Historical Journal. 2006;49(2):453-476. doi:10.1017/s0018246x06005280

Low MC. Empire And The Hajj: Pilgrims, Plagues, And Pan-Islam Under British Surveillance, 1865–1908. International Journal of Middle East Studies. 2008;40(2). doi:10.1017/s0020743808080884

Mishra S. Pilgrimage, Politics, and Pestilence: the Haj from the Indian Subcontinent, 1860-1920. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2011.

Mozur P, Zhong R, Krolik A. In Coronavirus Fight, China Gives Citizens a Color Code, With Red Flags. The New York Times. Published March 2, 2020. Accessed July 13, 2020.

Mukharji P. B. (2012). The “cholera cloud” in the nineteenth-century “British World”: history of an object-without-an-essence. Bulletin of the history of medicine, 86(3), 303–332.

Prashad V. Native Dirt/Imperial Ordure: The Cholera of 1832 and the morbid resolutions of Modernity. Journal of Historical Sociology. 1994;7(3):243-260. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6443.1994.tb00065.x

Prior K. The British administration of Hinduism in North India, 1780-1900. 1990. Accessed July 13, 2020.

Sarkar, Natasha. Plague in Bombay: Response of Britain’s Indian subjects to colonial intervention. Proceedings of the Indian History Congress. 2001;62:442-49.

The Revolutionaries. Accessed July 13, 2020.

Tytler R, Evans W. Observations on the Sickness Which Prevailed at Jessore, (Bengal), in the Months of Aug. and Sept. 1817. Medico-chirurgical journal : or, Quarterly register of medical and surgical science. Published October 1, 1818. Accessed July 13, 2020.

Yuan S. Life after the Wuhan lockdown. The California Sunday Magazine. Published June 9, 2020. Accessed July 13, 2020.


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