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Stephanie Barczewski
Clemson University 
 
Like many of us, I have had difficulty focusing on much except the coronavirus pandemic for the last few weeks. So, I decided to turn my lack of attention on anything else to a minor historical research project.

As I heard reports of the spread of coronavirus around the world, it struck me that, in a number of former British colonies, travelers – in some cases returning citizens and in others tourists or overseas visitors -- from the United Kingdom were responsible for bringing the first case of coronavirus to those countries.

This led me to a question: were the historical ties resulting from older colonial and continuing postcolonial relationships more responsible for spreading coronavirus than the ties of present-day globalization? The answer is yes, though it’s a close race.

Of sixty former British colonies, twelve (officially anyway) have no cases of coronavirus as of March 27 (Botswana, Kiribati, Lesotho, Malawi, Nauru, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Sierra Leone, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvaluand, Vanuatu and Yemen). For one other (Barbados) I was unable to determine the source of its first case.

Of the remaining forty-seven, coronavirus was brought to eleven of them (23.4 percent) by travelers from the United Kingdom, either tourists or their own returning citizens. The eleven are: Antigua and Barbuda, Cyprus, Dominica, the Gambia, Grenada, Jamaica, Mauritius, Myanmar, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Zimbabwe.

The United Kingdom was tied with China as the leading bringer of the virus to its former colonies. In six (12.8 percent), the virus was brought by someone from Iran; in five (10.6 percent) by someone from the United States; and in four (8.5 percent) by someone from Italy.

Of thirteen current British Overseas Territories, seven (the Falkland Islands, the British Indian Ocean Territory, the Pitcairn Islands, Saint Helena, South Georgia Island, Tristan de Cunha and the Turks and Caicos Islands) have no cases of coronavirus as of March 27. For one other, the British Virgin Islands, I was unable to determine whether there was a British source of its first case.[1]

Of the remaining five, coronavirus was brought to two (40 percent) by travelers from the United Kingdom, again either tourists or their own returning citizens.

If we add the former colonies and current overseas territories together, travelers from the United Kingdom were responsible for bringing coronavirus to thirteen of fifty-two (25 percent), a larger proportion than any other source. China is once again in second with eleven (21.2 percent), with the USA, Iran and Italy again next in line. It’s important to note that Chinese tourists take around 160 million trips outside the country each year, while British tourists take only 75 million, and around two-thirds of those are to the European continent, which means that the United Kingdom is playing a relatively bigger role as well as an absolutely bigger one. Although tourists, at least from what I can glean from press reports, are not the main issue: in only three of the thirteen cases were tourists the first bringer of the virus to a particular country. In ten, it was brought by a returning resident of the country who had traveled to the United Kingdom. (I would speculate that many of those ten were probably visiting relatives.)

Assessed regionally, the role played by travelers from Britain in spreading the virus was by far the strongest in the Caribbean, with eight of the thirteen nations located there (Antigua and Barbuda, Bermuda, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, Montserrat, Saint Lucia and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines). Next comes Africa with three (the Gambia, Mauritius and Zimbabwe), and the Mediterranean (Cyprus) and Southeast Asia (Myanmar) contain one each. So the global impact was far from uniform.

The ties of empire are therefore still strong, particularly in the Caribbean, when it comes to determining the patterns of global travel, and unfortunately in this case in the determining the routes that a virus takes in its spread around the world.

This is obviously quick-and-dirty analysis, and I’d love to hear more thoughts and insight from my fellow NACBS members.


[1] The first two cases arrived in the British Virgin Islands on 26 March and are categorized as being from ‘Europe and the United States’.

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