As the spread of the latest coronavirus starts to slow in China and South Korea, the disease is making its way into elite circles in the U.S. Rick Cotton, the head of the Port Authority in New York and New Jersey announced Monday that he had contracted it. New York governor Andrew Cuomo, who has declared a state of emergency, has said that he may have also been in contact with Cotton while he was contagious. And a string of Republican senators and congressmen all came in contact with at least one coronavirus patient at last week's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC)—where attendees mocked the outbreak as an attempt by Democrats to smear Donald Trump. Some of those congressmen reportedly interacted with the president before they self-isolated.
One of those Republican congressmen was representative Paul Gosar of Arizona, formerly best-known as the man whose siblings put out a political ad telling people not to vote for him. When Gosar announced Sunday that he was entering self-isolation for 14 days—the period of time it takes to develop symptoms—he called the disease the "Wuhan virus," a reference to the Chinese city where the outbreak originated—as of Tuesday, the disease has spread to more than 100 countries, and in the U.S. people have tested positive in 36 states and Washington, DC. In response to Gosar's comments, Democratic politicians and liberal groups chastised him, for using a racist phrase instead of the name scientists are using.
"Coronavirus" is an umbrella term that covers a lot of different viruses, from the common cold to SARS, which is why the resulting disease from this particular strain is referred to as Coronavirus Disease-2019, or COVID-19 for short. The WHO says the name "was deliberately chosen to avoid stigmatization," and there are real consequences to linking COVID-19 to Chinese people. Just last week, A 23-year-old student from Singapore studying in London was attacked just by a man who reportedly said, "I don't want your coronavirus in my country." Before that, the Asian American Journalists Association issued a statement asking news organizations "to avoid fueling xenophobia and racism that have already emerged since the outbreak." Along with warning "against blanket use of Chinatown images that reinforce stereotypes and create a sense of 'otherness,'" the AAJA specifically referred to World Health Organization guidelines "discouraging the use of geographic locations when naming illnesses because it could stigmatize the people living there." In fact, the WHO issued new guidelines specifically for COVID-19, saying explicitly, "Don’t attach locations or ethnicity to the disease, this is not a 'Wuhan Virus,' 'Chinese Virus,' or 'Asian Virus.'"
Gosar defended himself on Sunday, tweeting, "Just astoundingly ignorant to have all major media refer to it as #WuhanVirus for months but somehow, today, you’ve decided that’s #racist." He added, "Ignore the snowflake Leftists who think everything is racist. It's a virus. It doesn't care about your race."
But of course he's not the sole Republican trying to make that connection. Even the GOP leadership is ramping up the rhetoric. On Monday, Kevin McCarthy, the minority leader in the House of Representatives, tweeted, "Everything you need to know about the Chinese coronavirus can be found on one, regularly-updated website," providing a link to the CDC's page on COVID-19, which doesn't feature the word "Chinese" anywhere. That tweet from the highest-ranking House republican is still up.
Conservative pundits have also been fanning xenophobia. On Sunday, right-wing radio host Hugh Hewitt claimed that it's necessary to link COVID-19 to China because the Chinese government doesn't want to be associated with the disease: "Contrary to the absurd idea that #wuhanvirus is a racist term, it may be a necessary one to prevent an Orwellian rewrite of history underway by some in [China]."
And on Tuesday, Charlie Kirk, the head of the conservative students group Turning Points USA, went even further, calling COVID-19 "the China Virus." On Twitter, he cited it as a reason to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, saying, "With China Virus spreading across the globe, the US stands a chance if we can control of our borders." Trump retweeted Kirk, saying, "Going up fast. We need the Wall more than ever!"
It's not clear why or how a border wall would do anything to prevent the spread of COVID-19, since all cases in the U.S. have been the result of international travel, not illegal border crossing. If anything, Trump's policy that asylum-seekers stay in migrant camps in Mexico while processing their (completely legal) asylum claims is far more likely to exacerbate the outbreak than a wall-less border. The Trump administration implemented the policy in the hopes that sufficiently miserable conditions will deter people from applying for asylum, but that plan hasn't worked. As a result of this entirely punitive policy, thousands of people have been living in makeshift camps for months, relying almost entirely on volunteers for medical assistance.
The Trump administration and its allies in Congress and conservative media haven't been shy about linking all sort of unrelated social problems to immigration—from low wages to violent crime. Blaming immigrants and foreigners for disease outbreak isn't out of character.
But Trump's xenophobic policies haven't protected Americans from COVID-19—in fact, it's hobbled the administration's ability to stop the spread. While other countries have rushed out widespread testing for the disease—Germany is using drive centers to give patients swabs and Chinese cities running low on test kits found ways to diagnose the disease via CT scans—Trump's first response to the outbreak in late January was to impose travel restrictions. Trump even bragged that he made those restrictions over the protests of his own public health officials, who stressed that testing people already in the U.S. would have a bigger impact than just trying to keep people out. And the U.S. still lags far behind where it needs to be with testing: as of March 8, only 1,700 tests had been conducted in the U.S., compared to 3,450 in Israel and 23,000 in the United Kingdom, both countries with a fraction of the U.S. population.
Trump supporters like Gosar and the president's former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski say that a pandemic is no time to be "political." And they're right. But the administration's xenophobia led it to once again target immigrants rather than actually deal with the problem.
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Originally Appeared on GQ