Epidemics, indigenous communities, and public health in the COVID-19 era: Views from smallpox inoculation campaigns in colonial Guatemala

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

This article explores the tensions between well-intentioned humanitarianism and coercive colonialism during smallpox outbreaks in eighteenth-century Guatemala, when the state extended inoculation programmes to its predominant, culturally diverse Maya communities. Evidence from anti-epidemic campaigns shows public debates broadly comparable to the current COVID-19 crisis: debates about the measurably higher mortality rates for indigenous people and other marginalized groups; debates about the extent of the state's responsibility for the health of its peoples; and debates on whether or not coercion and violence should be used to ensure compliance with quarantines and public health campaigns. While inoculations provided medical assistance and material help to Maya communities, and resulted in demonstrably lower mortality rates from smallpox, at the same time they functioned as avenues for the expansion of colonial power to intervene in the daily lives of people in those communities, characterized by colonial actors as necessary for their own good, and for the broader public good.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)380-393
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Global History
Volume15
Issue number3
DOIs
StatePublished - Nov 1 2020
Externally publishedYes

Keywords

  • colonialism
  • humanitarianism
  • indigeneity
  • pandemic
  • smallpox
  • vaccine

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • Sociology and Political Science

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