As COVID-19 continues to ravage the human population of earth, xenophobia and racism are alive and well. For example, an Iranian leader is playing to his base by playing on fears of America and Israel. He is advancing, without evidence, the claim that the virus was created specifically to target Iranians. In addition to conspiracy theories that the Chinese engineered the virus (either to reduce their own population or for use against other nations) there has also been a worldwide rise in xenophobia and racism against Asians.
One reason for the xenophobia and racism is that people are looking for a visible enemy upon which to take out their fear and anger. Many people feel helpless and afraid in this crisis and humans are naturally inclined to focus on other humans as threats—thus the rise in xenophobia and racism. People are also naturally inclined to try to explain the causes of things and just as humans were prone to blaming the gods for such woes as floods and earthquakes, they are also prone to seeking an intelligence behind dangers. Since humans suffer from in group bias and bad leaders feed xenophobia and racism, it is no surprise that people are seeking a scapegoat for this crisis: someone must be to blame. Someone must pay.
The United States, with a long tradition of racism against Asians, has seen an increase in xenophobia and racism. While most incidents have been limited to verbal hostility, racism in the context of a disease raises serious concerns. The United States does have an established history of weaponizing racism in the context of diseases and we should be on guard against this tactic as leaders endeavor to appeal to their base and divert attention away from their failings. The most obvious example of an American leader’s effort to use xenophobia and racism to their advantage is Donald Trump’s insistence on using the term “Chinese virus” in place of “coronavirus” or “COVID-19.”
Trump does have excellent, albeit evil, reasons to use this term. One is that it appeals to certain parts of his base—the use of this dog whistle sends the message that he is speaking to them and still thinking about them. A second reason is that its use helps shift attention and blame from Trump’s utterly inept and damaging early handling of the crisis. By casting it as a Chinese virus Trump could create the appearance that the threat is the responsibility of a foreign power (and race) and thus mitigate Trump’s responsibility. Third, it helps create an “us versus them” mentality which can bring non-Chinese Americans together against the Chinese (and other Asians, of course) and motivate them to support Trump. Unfortunately, while Trump can gain some apparent advantages from this approach, it comes with considerable cost.
There are certainly those who defend Trump in this matter. My first response to such defenders is to point out that I am using Trump as one example for the broader problem of xenophobia and racism. If a Trump defender insists Trump was not engaged in any racism or xenophobia, then I simply appeal to the cases in which others are blaming the United States for the virus—I would suspect that a Trump supporter would agree that the xenophobia of other countries towards the United States is not helping and is, in fact, detrimental.
My second response is that Trump is clearly and obviously engaged in intentional racism and xenophobia. He is using a well-worn xenophobic/racist trope of the foreign disease and the diseased foreigner—one that was most recently used in the racism aimed at the allegedly diseased caravans heading towards the United States from the south. That Trump’s defenders must engage in relentless and regular efforts to try to explain away his seemingly racist claims tends to undercut their own case—one would need to argue that Trump unintentionally but constantly uses stock racist tropes, language and tropes. While not logically impossible, it does strain the boundaries of possibility.
One rather clear piece of evidence is that Trump used his infamous sharpie to cross out “Corona” in his speech and replace it with “Chinese”, thus showing that his usage was planned and intended, rather than a slip of some sort. His defenders can engage in various gymnastics to explain this. One strategy is to argue that Trump is using “Chinese virus” like “Spanish flu” has been used. While this approach has some appeal, calling the flu the “Spanish flu” is also problematic. Labeling a disease with a specific country or ethnicity tends to lead to stigma and racism. As such, using the “Spanish Flu” defense is like defending the use of “wetback” by pointing to the use of “wop.”
A second strategy is to argue that Trump is just referring to where it came from and, for bonus points, one can point out that it was originally called the “Wu Han virus.” One can, with a sly wink, say that it cannot be racist or xenophobic for Trump to use “Chinese virus” because the Chinese used “Wu Han virus.” The easy and obvious reply is that the use of the term “Wu Han virus” was also seen as problematic—for the same reasons that “Spanish flu” and “Chinese virus” are problematic. To use an analogy, this would be like a Chinese leader talking about “Caucasian flu” and saying that was just fine because, for example, Americans first started using a term like “Connecticut flu” when the disease first appeared. Since Trump intentionally decided to refer to it as the “Chinese flu” and there are no good reasons to use that term, the best explanation is the obvious one: Trump was engaged in a xenophobic and racist dog whistle, cashing in on the well worn trope of the diseased foreigner and the foreign disease. For those who would expend considerable energy trying to cast his usage in a positive light, one must ask why do so? And why defend him against the umpteenth reasonable charge of racism and xenophobia?
As noted above, there was already racism and xenophobia against Asians (and Asian-Americans) and Trump’s insistence on calling it the “Chinese virus” is likely to have contributed to the uptick in such incidents. Using such a label also helps put the United States at odds with other counties (and other countries blaming us has the same effect). Having Americans turn against other Americans is always harmful and is especially so during a crisis in which community unity is a key part of our survival toolkit. It is also harmful to try to create conflict between nations when cooperation will significantly improve our response to the virus. It is, as I have noted before, a war between humans and the virus. Creating conflict between humans might serve the selfish goals of certain leaders, but it does humanity no good. As such, a key lesson from the COVID-19 virus is that using the tools of racism and xenophobia will only make things worse—something that is always true.