Class Epidemics and Gender Racism Vulnerability

The virus comes by car: the social construction of asymptomatic carriers

By Pamela Kultscher, BA

An international pandemic bears enormous challenges for all governments and health officials. One of those challenges is not to give way to the temptation to name scapegoats within the population, especially if a disease is transmitted by asymptomatic carriers, i.e. people with no symptoms but enough pathogen count to transmit the disease. On December 3rd, 2020, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz got caught in this communication trap when he put the blame for the rising COVID-19 infections in his country since the summer on the population with roots in Turkey and the Balkans. His reasoning was that they had travelled to their countries of origin for the summer holidays and therefore had imported infections to a supposedly healthy and virus-free Austria. By doing so, Kurz labelled people with migration background as others and constructed the image of a disproportionate number of infections tied to this population group.

There’s something about Mary: a historical perspective

Looking back onto the history of pandemics, it becomes quite clear that this was not the first time that government officials practiced othering and thus constructed an image of certain groups as the culprits in a pandemic. The most prominent single case, especially because it found its way into the English language as an everyday expression, is that of Mary Mallon, referred to by the media as “Typhoid Mary”. Foss explains that the term is used to indicate a person who is “an extreme carrier of disease, a burden on society, a scourge of contagion”. [1]

Mary Mallon was an Irish immigrant to the United States who famously was arrested and put in quarantine in 1906 because health officials of the city of New York were convinced that she was an asymptomatic carrier of Typhoid fever and had caused, in her function as a (somewhat renowned) cook to wealthy New York families, an outbreak of the disease resulting in several deaths. The concept of asymptomatic carriers was new at the time, and when Mary Mallon was labelled as such by sanitation engineer George Soper, she was the perfect person to be made an example of.

Class, race and gender as determinants of health & accountability

Mary Mallon was quarantined for the first time from 1907 to 1910 and after she was set free under the condition to never work as a cook again, was arrested again in 1915. She had not been able to finance her life with a job other than cooking and had thus infected 25 people working in the kitchen of a maternity hospital. As with the first quarantine, she was sent to Riverside Hospital on North Brother Island and lived in a small cottage on the hospital grounds until her death in 1938. She had been detained, without a court conviction for any crime and solely in the name of public health, for a total of 26 years.

Why was Mary Mallon singled out? The literature agrees on three socio-economic traits that predestined her for othering: class, race and gender. [2 3 4] Mary Mallon might have worked at New York’s finest addresses but as a cook, she was part of the working class. And even though she could write and read well, New York’s health officials denied her the capability to understand her health status. [5]

Furthermore, Mary Mallon was Irish and the Irish weren’t necessarily perceived as white at that time. [6] Health officials often blamed epidemics on non-white “races” and did not hesitate to act. In 1900, tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants to San Francisco found themselves confined to Chinatown, which had been closed off by health officials over night because of a supposed outbreak of the bubonic plague. [7] Another characteristic that was ascribed to the Irish at the time was stubbornness. This was perceived as the reason why Mary refused to receive potentially life-threatening treatment as a cure for the Typhoid bacillii roaming her intestines. [8]

And last but not least, Mary Mallon was a woman, albeit not an ordinary woman for her time. Mary was unmarried, (physically) strong and did not have children. She was perceived as somewhat masculine and did not fit into the idea people had of respectable women at the time.[9 10] The fact that she had no husband to support her, no children that needed her and that she was not perceived as how a woman should be, made it possible for her to be detained for a lifetime without a prison sentence.[11 12]  This hypothesis is supported by the fact that while there were more than four hundred other asymptomatic carriers of the disease during her lifetime, none of them faced the same fate as her.[13] Foss argues that Mallon has been continually dehumanized by being reduced to her health status, be it by the media or health officials.[14]

Applause is not enough

Sebastian Kurz has made use of the same kind of dehumanization when he blamed immigrants who are members of certain ethnic groups and the working class, and due to their professions very often women, for rising infection numbers. He omitted to mention that these are exactly the people who have been applauded for continuing to do their work during the beginning of the pandemic: the nursing staff, the supermarket cashiers, the gas station salespeople and so many more who build the backbone of Austria’s economy. Most likely, they did not import their infections from their summer holiday destinations but got infected doing essential work in Austria. This is not how they should be thanked.

Recommended sources:

Rund Abdelfatah; Ramtin Arablouei; Julie Caine; N’Jeri Eaton; Laine Kaplan Levenson; Kia Miakka Natisse; Laurence Wu; Jamie York (Producer) (2020): There’s Something About Mary [Throughline]. Retrieved from [21.12.2020]

Bourdain, Anthony (2005): Typhoid Mary. London: Bloomsberg Publishing.

Fitzgerald & Rimini (2019): Typhus Mary. 50 Hertz. Bern: Der gesunde Menschenversand. Retrieved from [10.01.2021]


[1] Foss, Katherine A. (2020): Constructing the Outbreak: Epidemics in Media and Collective Memory. Amherst & Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, p. 99.

[2] ibid, p. 119.

[3] Hasian, Marouf A. (2007): Macht, medizinisches Wissen und die rhetorische Erfindung der “Typhoid Mary”. In: Philipp Sarasin; Silvia Berger; Hänseler Marianne; Spürri Myriam (Eds.), Bakteriologie und Moderne: Studien zur Biopolitik des Unsichtbaren. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 496-521, pp. 506-517.

[4] Leavitt, Judith Walzer (1996): Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public’s Health. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, pp. 96-125.

[5] Hasian (2007), p. 508.

[6] Ignatiev, Noel (1995): How the Irish became White. New York, London: Routledge; pp. 2-3.

[7] Hasian (2007), p. 507.

[8] ibid, p. 508.

[9] ibid.

[10] Foss (2020), p. 107.

[11] ibid, p. 119.

[12] Leavitt (1996), p. 97.

[13] Marineli, Filio; Gregory Tsoucalas; Marianna Karamanou; George Androutsos (2013): Mary Mallon (1869-1938) and the history of typhoid fever. Annals of Gastroenterology, 26(2): 132-134, p. 134.

[14] Foss (2020), p. 106.