On Monday, President Donald Trump was widely praised by even many of his sternest critics for an uncharacteristically subdued press conference in which, after weeks of downplaying the threat of the coronavirus pandemic, he sternly cautioned Americans about the gravity of our present moment.
Trump and his coronavirus taskforce were indeed informative and the marked change of tone came better late than never. But any notion that this press conference might have marked a new era in Trump’s nativist inclinations was quickly dispelled on (where else?) Twitter, when he referred to coronavirus as a “Chinese Virus”.
The United States will be powerfully supporting those industries, like Airlines and others, that are particularly affected by the Chinese Virus. We will be stronger than ever before!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 16, 2020
This is part of what appears to be a coordinated attempt on the part of some lawmakers to rebrand the coronavirus as a foreign threat, naming it after the country that first discovered it. Various politicians have played with “Wuhan Virus” and “Chinese Coronavirus,” among other, more obviously offensive terms. CBS News Reporter Weijia Jiang said an unnamed White House official called it “Kung-Flu”.
But it shouldn’t take reaching for clear racial stereotypes to realize what is happening here. The coronavirus has a name. Everyone knows what it is. Rarely, if ever, in human history has one word so quickly embedded itself in the public consciousness. If an attempt from political leaders to rename it now, after the threat becomes impossible to ignore, doesn’t make you a little suspicious about the motive, check the batteries spin detector.
China is one of Trump’s favorite targets and it here makes for a convenient enemy. The virus was first discovered in Wuhan, China and some critics have taken issue with the government’s response to and messaging around the early days of its spread. The new coronavirus causes the disease COVID-19 ([CO]rona [VI]rus [D]isease 20), so while the coronavirus itself is old and the cause behind a variety of respiratory illnesses, the actual disease caused by a newly discovered strain is the actual threat.
COVID-19 can’t be punched, bullied, smeared or paid off, but a “Chinese Virus” gives it a form that fits more easily into the President’s usual methods of crisis management. If China is the bad guy, America can unite against a common enemy. And if Asian people, including immigrants and those of Asian heritage here in the U.S., get caught in the crossfire of a fresh wave of xenophobia and racism, then so be it.
This is why Christians, of all people, ought to be sharp enough to call this what it is: xenophobic. The call of Christ is to love the vulnerable, the marginalized and the outcast. In the U.S., that call always includes racial minorities, but right now it’s vital for the Church to be sensitive to the ways this pandemic is making those of Asian heritage vulnerable to racist attacks. Christians need to denounce every attempt to feed xenophobia with boldness.
Author and pastor Eugene Cho told the Washington Post he knows of three people who’ve faced racist assaults that can be attributed to COVID-19 rhetoric. New Yorker staff writer Jiayang Fan wrote of facing frightening screams from a stranger while she took out the trash.
“I’ve never felt like this in my 27 yrs in this country,” she wrote. “I’ve never felt afraid to leave my home to take out the trash bc of my face.”
The fig leaf of plausible deniability is the relatively brief history of viral outbreaks being named after their place of origin. On Twitter, Senator Chuck Grassley huffed that “I don’t understand why China gets upset bc we refer to the virus that originated there the ‘Chinese virus’. Spain never got upset when we referred to the Spanish flu in 1918 & 1919.”
Grassley’s history is musty here. The Spanish Flu didn’t originate in Spain. Wartime censors suppressed news of the influenza’s spread in a misguided attempt to keep public morale high during the throes of World War I, but Spain had remained neutral and reported on the epidemic freely — leading other nations to assume it must be ground zero of the outbreak. While no one is quite sure where the pandemic began, a leading theory is actually Kansas.
But even setting historical facts aside, does anyone really want to hold up American attitudes about xenophobia in 1918 as the gold standard of how to treat others? Historian Rayford Logan refers to this period as the “Nadir of American Race Relations”. Perhaps we should not be looking to this particularly ugly era for guidance in how to discuss racial issues with sensitivity and compassion.
Let’s look to the future instead: a future in which anxiety is not stoked for political gain and racial animus no longer wielded as a convenient tool. In times of uncertainty, it’s natural to want a common enemy to unite against. But if there are Asian people telling us that they are feeling extra frightened by the rhetoric being used, what authority or expertise do non-Asian people have to tell them otherwise? Instead, let’s obey God’s call to love those who need it.
During this season of social-distancing and mass anxiety around issues like health, work and the economy, that love may need to look more radical than ever. It does mean staying indoors, looking after the elderly and people with compromised immune systems and taking care of those whose jobs and housing is being uniquely affected by an economy in freefall. But it also means resisting the urge to make a virus that threatens the whole world into a “foreign” problem. The Church transcends such boundaries. Let’s show them how it’s done.