After repeatedly referring to Covid-19 or coronavirus as the “Chinese virus”, Donald Trump suggested in late March that he would consider stopping use of the term if it bothered the Asian-American community. The president added that he did not think it was racist, as the virus had originated in China. His decision to stop labelling it “Chinese” came after the publication of reports of hate crimes against Asian-Americans and amid FBI warnings that such crimes could surge because of the virus.
Trump is undoubtedly partly responsible for this casual and sometimes violent racism. The president called coronavirus the “foreign virus” in his mid-March address to the nation. He has also drawn a connection between the spread of a virus and the need for strong and protected borders, and described himself as a wartime president fighting against an enemy. Meanwhile his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, sparred over the term “Wuhan virus” with other G7 foreign ministers. But neither man is the first person to have othered a virus.
“This pattern is not new,” says Alan Kraut, a professor of history at American University in Washington, DC, as he goes through its greatest hits. New York’s 1832 cholera epidemic was blamed on Irish Catholic immigrants; in 1900, evidence of a bubonic plague in San Francisco was blamed on Chinese immigrants, and only Chinatown was quarantined; and in the US in the 19th century, tuberculosis was termed the “tailor’s disease” and blamed on Jews.
Americans did not invent the concept of blaming outsiders; in the Middle Ages, Jewish communities in Europe were attacked because they were blamed for the Black Death. Yet if this notion of othering was once a foreign one, it has since moved to the US, and assimilated. “This is a persistent theme throughout American history. If there is a group that is already looked at askance, the medicalisation of prejudice helps to rationalise their stigmatisation,” Kraut says. “You can always argue, ‘yeah, we hate these people, but with good reason, because they brought disease to our midst’.”
The notable exception is, ironically, the pandemic to which coronavirus has been most frequently compared: the Spanish flu of 1918-20 (so called because reporters in Spain, neutral during the First World War, did not feel the same official or self-imposed pressure to censor, and so reported more freely on the pandemic). But because it struck during a war the army was especially hard hit, and the army was made up of the children and grandchildren of a variety of immigrant groups, not one of which stood out as especially responsible.
There is another way in which the pandemic of 1918-20 differs from today’s. The US was then, as it is now, at war. But while the wars in which the US is currently engaged are out of sight and mind for a segment of the population, the First World War had galvanised the country. “You can only go on a wartime footing once,” Kraut says. “We were already on a wartime footing in 1918.”
By contrast, US officials today are trying to get on to a wartime footing in dealing with coronavirus. There’s Trump, for one. But there is also the New York governor, Andrew Cuomo, who said on 26 March that the city, specifically, is “fighting a war against this virus and we need all the help we can get”.
There is also the former vice-president Joe Biden, who will likely run against Trump as the Democratic nominee for president. In his latest televised debate with Bernie Sanders – his opponent for the nomination – Sanders noted that this moment made clear the failure of the US healthcare system. Biden replied: “This is a crisis. We are at war with a virus. This has nothing to do with [copayments] or anything.”
There are reasons, of course, for a government to liken a virus to a war. In war, the country is mobilised. Its citizens stand together and make sacrifices for the collective good. The leaders can call on their people to do more, and can call for the temporary infringement of civil liberties, and the people will accept that. The government can also call on factories to produce much-needed ventilators, and can transform an events centre into a makeshift hospital.
But there are risks, too. When the US came together after the attacks on 11 September 2001, it did so in part by infringing on civil liberties – particularly on the rights of Muslim Americans. The virus is not an attack carried out by humans, and the president may be walking back from assigning blame to one specific ethnic group, but marginalised Americans may still be ostracised while the rest of the country is called on to come together.
Perhaps the likelier risk in terms of actual government policy is not that Chinese-Americans will have their rights subjugated, but that the language and thinking of war – of foreign and domestic, of in-groups and out-groups, of us and them – will be used to justify and make palatable this administration’s rejection of refugees. There is real concern, Kraut says, that “this will be used to reinforce the argument of excluding refugees and others who are applying for asylum at our borders”.
“On the one hand, society needs to have borders… on the other, we can’t use this as a rationalisation for closing ourselves off from the rest of the world,” he says. Americans, however, will see certain people try to do just that. Some of whom occupy the White House, believing themselves to be wartime leaders and battling a foreign enemy with all the xenophobia such a task is thought to require.
This article appears in the 24 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special