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History repeating itself: lessons that can be learned from “Typhoid Mary” in the age of COVID-19

As the world looks for context and solutions to the COVId-19 pandemic, researchers at the Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work recently published a paper the effects discrimination has on public health, particularly in a time of an outbreak.

While it is clear that discrimination against women and other vulnerable groups prevailed throughout the twen­tieth century; it persists today. Amani Othman, doctoral student in the department of Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, recently published a case study in the International Journal of Social Quality  (vol. 8, Issue 2) that analyzes the life and times of Mary Mallon, aka “Typhoid Mary;” an unmarried, Irish Catholic, immigrant woman who was persecuted as an intransigent carrier of a deadly infectious disease.

“This paper emerged from my deep interest in the ethical issues in public health and its history. I took ‘History and Foundations of Public Health’ and ‘Ethics in Public Health’ courses with Dr. William Darrow, and with his encouragement, I merged the two interests in one paper,” Othman said “I perceive my role as a health promoter to ensure health as a human right, especially for disadvantaged communities. From this paper, I hope that the reader can see how discrimination against minorities at that time caused health disparities that affected the health of the whole population, and this remains as valid now as it did then.”

The failure to overcome prejudice impedes the effectiveness of public health to protect infected patients and susceptible persons from harm and to interrupt disease transmission in communities; it jeopardizes the realization of social quality.

According to Othman’s article: being a Mexican immigrant, Muslim, or unattractive woman in the United States could condemn someone for similar mistreatment today.

Social justice, solidarity, equal valuation, and human dignity will be achieved through resistance to the human rights violations of demagogic politicians and the resilience of strong women like Mallon.

“As we have learned, COVID-19 is disproportionately attacking and killing African-Americans and other disadvantaged groups in the US and elsewhere.  Asian-looking persons are targets of insults, threats, and abuse.  They have been spat upon because they are blamed for spreading “the China virus.”  These are ethical issues of social solidarity, human dignity, and the protection of fundamental human rights that lie at the core of public health” said William Darrow, professor in the Department of Health Promotion and Disease Prevention.

Click here to read the full paper.

 

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