How fear and politics slowed response to the bubonic plague that hit SF in 1900

Disease struck and politicians blamed the patients, their country of origin and the public health officials who delivered the diagnosis. It’s an old story.

Public health warnings were dismissed as a “scare,” and a politically motivated “hoax.” Thugs, fueled by fear and xenophobia, hurled slurs and attacks on Asian Americans. But blame-shifting and scapegoating of Chinese people just delayed care, and made the population less safe.

Politicians sidelined public health experts who delivered stark truth or strayed from the party line. Meanwhile, the powerful and their sycophants prematurely declared that the foe was on the run and we were open for business. Even after the ranks of the sick grew to include people of every background, the racializing of disease still tainted our public discourse.

This isn’t just a snapshot of the coronavirus in 2020; it’s also a picture of the bubonic plague that hit San Francisco in 1900. Back then, much like today, the knee-jerk reactions — deny, delay, divert and blame — made it harder for doctors and scientists to do their job of preventing cases, treating patients and eradicating the disease. As I wrote in my book “The Barbary Plague: the Black Death in Victorian San Francisco,” political roadblocks to public health are common and costly.

They’re also as predictable as the movie “Groundhog Day.”

In 1900, scapegoating, cover-ups and faux conspiracy theories were the order of the day. One official even accused doctors of injecting corpses with plague germs to prove their diagnosis, and control the city’s health bureaucracy. San Francisco could have quashed plague quickly by attacking the real threat — infected rat fleas — rather than blaming patients or demeaning doctors.

In 2020, the U.S. could have pursued the coronavirus by nationalizing mask, gown and ventilator production, and adopting the World Health Organization’s early coronavirus test in January — to access adequate supplies and an earlier picture of viral spread. We were late to these tasks because Washington wasted time, railing at the Chinese and imputing dark motives to the WHO. At home, the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, long our premier source of epidemic intelligence, has grown quiet. Whoever muzzles the CDC imperils U.S. health.

But while politicians and their cynical allies fiddle, plague burns. Back in 1900 San Francisco, a cover-up allowed plague to smolder underground, igniting a second wave after the 1906 earthquake. In the end, it took until 1910 to declare real victory.

The delay exacted another permanent price. Delays in rodent eradication gave plague rats plenty of time to travel into the East Bay hills, and migrate further east to the Rocky Mountains. There the virus remains endemic today in squirrels and prairie dogs, infecting people each year in states like New Mexico. Studies show it’s the same strain of the plague bacillus that affected San Francisco in 1900. The only difference is, today’s patients have lifesaving antibiotics. Because there’s no cure for coronavirus, promoting quack cures and delaying testing, tracking and tracing will all cost lives.

The only sure thing — like death and taxes — is that we share the world with microbes. For decades, our best scientists cautioned us that we would see the rise new pandemic diseases. But the current administration disbanded the Office of Pandemic Preparedness, only to claim — incredibly — that no one saw this new scourge coming. Scientists saw it; Washington ignored it.

The names of the diseases, their symptoms, speed of travel and style of transmission change. Sadly, human nature does not. Just like the 1918 “Spanish flu (which probably started in Kansas) and 15th century “French disease” (syphilis, which went everywhere) global pandemics trigger predictable rounds of buck-passing. Demonizing our neighbors around the world and subjecting science to political spin leaves only one victor standing: the virus.

As for San Francisco? Our city has come a long way since the 1900-era dealmakers in City Hall and Sacramento cut a deal to cover up the plague. This year, Mayor London Breed and Gov. Gavin Newsom imposed a shelter-in-place program that flattened the rising curve of COVID-19 cases. Let’s stay on course, and keep putting people before plague politics.

Marilyn Chase is a journalist, author and instructor at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Her latest book is “Everything She Touched: The Life of Ruth Asawa” (Chronicle Books, April 2020).