The Empire of All Maladies by Nick Estes

Nick Estes: The United States has a long history of sacrificing or killing off groups of people—through war or disease or both—in the name of its self-proclaimed destiny. This belief in the country’s violent superiority was already evident among the early Puritans, who attributed the mass die-off of Indigenous peoples to divine intervention. “God hath so pursued them” John Winthrop, the Puritan leader of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, wrote of the Indigenous to the King of England in 1634.

[…] To blind themselves to the destruction they wrought, colonizers wove cultural fictions about the “vastness” of a continent devoid of human civilization—terra nullius—and thus open for white European settlement. (This was an early ideological ancestor of the Zionist phrase, “a land without a people for a people without a land,” that has come to justify the expulsion and colonization of Palestinians.) General Henry Knox, the revolutionary war hero and the United States’ first secretary of war, was less confused about how the land was emptied. He recalled “the utter extirpation of all the Indians in the most populous parts of the Union” by measures “more destructive to the Indian natives than the conduct of the conquerors of Mexico and Peru.” No small feat.

The imperial project wasn’t confined to what became the continental United States. It soon turned outward, as the settler state exported the horrors it had committed against the Indigenous to the rest of the planet. Most historians have failed to draw what are obvious connections between heightened rates of infection and conditions of war, invasion, and colonialism. We need only look at the cholera outbreak in Yemen to see the relationship of disease to U.S. foreign policy. No one is disputing the fact that the infection of millions and the deaths of thousands there at the hands of this preventable disease are the result of a U.S.-backed, Saudi-led war, which has destroyed Yemen’s health care infrastructure. It shouldn’t surprise us to learn that one in four surgical amputations conducted at Red Cross centers in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen are the result of diabetes. These three countries have been the staging ground for U.S.-backed military interventions and invasions that have disrupted critical food and medical supply chains.

Economic sanctions, frequently hailed by politicians of all stripes as a “humane” alternative to war, are simply war by another means. U.S. sanctions currently hit hard in thirty-nine countries—one-third of humanity—causing currency inflation and devaluation and upsetting the distribution of medicine, food, power, water treatment, and other human needs. A 2019 report by the Center for Economic and Policy Studies found that U.S. sanctions on Venezuela accounted for an estimated forty thousand deaths and a loss of $6 billion in oil revenue between 2017 and 2018. As Iran began to experience increased rates of coronavirus infection, the country faced medical supply shortages because of sanctions. While countries like China and Cuba, themselves both sanctioned by the United States, provided international aid to other countries suffering from the pandemic, Trump actively prevented other countries from adequately responding to the crisis.

Indigenous scholars have long contested the “virgin-soil epidemics” thesis. Today, it is clear that the disease thesis simply doesn’t hold up. More here.

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