With more than 70,000 Americans dead from the coronavirus pandemic and more dying by the day, Republican senators Marsha Blackburn and Martha McSally have finally attempted to do something: They introduced a bill called the Stop COVID Act of 2020, which sounds very much like a useful and urgent piece of legislation at this critical time. Here’s the catch: It does absolutely nothing to stop COVID and nothing even tangential to stopping COVID. Instead, it allows Americans, as Blackburn explained, to “sue China in U.S. courts for the damage they’ve inflicted on our country.”
It’s actually a very clever trick: The “COVID” in the bill’s title does not stand for “coronavirus disease,” as scientists use it, but for “China-Originated Viral Infectious Diseases.” See what they did there? You may still get the coronavirus, and medical professionals still may not have the personal protective equipment they need to treat you without catching it themselves. But Republicans have kindly pointed you to a politically convenient scapegoat in case you should need one. Feel free to call the manager of COVID—ahem, China, not us!—and ask for your money back.
The bill is as idiotic as it is xenophobic. While the first known outbreak of the novel coronavirus occurred in Wuhan, China, the strains of New York’s outbreak—now the epicenter of the global pandemic, with nearly 20,000 deaths so far—actually appear to have come here from Europe, and much of America's outbreak is domestic spread. While the Chinese government is certainly to blame for covering up the dangers of the virus in the early stages of it spreading there, President Donald Trump is guilty of the very same thing. The Washington Post has catalogued 44 instances of Trump downplaying the risks of the pandemic, including saying it’s “just the same as a flu,” calling it the Democratic response to it a “hoax,” predicting in March that cases would “be down to close to zero” within a “couple of days,” and saying the virus would just naturally disappear in warm weather “like a miracle.”
The Trump administration dragged its feet on making widespread testing available and stood in the way of getting doctors, nurses, and other essential workers the PPE they need to survive on the front lines by forcing states to compete for supplies. Months into the outbreak, we are still dangerously, mortifyingly short on both. Nine Democrats in the Senate urged Trump in a letter on Wednesday to use his wartime authorities, via the Defense Production Act, to boost testing supplies and protection gear, and it’s baffling that Republicans did not join them in that effort. Experts believe Trump could have prevented 90 percent of the coronavirus deaths in America so far—the death toll will likely hurtle past 100,000 in a few weeks—simply by issuing social distancing measures just two weeks earlier. Oh, and the president casually suggested in a nationally televised press conference that Americans ingest or inject household cleaners as a cure, causing enough people to actually do so that poison control calls spiked.
Of course, Trump and Republicans in Congress are very aware of his epic failures to lead in this crisis. They see his plummeting approval numbers ahead of the November election. Bodies are piling up, and the economy is in crisis, with more than 33 million newly filing for unemployment in the past seven weeks. He is set to lose his job and take a number of GOP candidates down with him—unless he can successfully redirect blame for this whole mess. He won the first time around by fanning the flames of xenophobia toward Mexico and Central America, so why pivot to competent governance now? Blaming China is easy, because there is enough truth to the charge to make it stick—if voters can ignore Trump’s continued bungling of the federal government's response—and because the “Chinese Communist Party” just sounds like something Trump’s base can get whipped up about hating.
And so, Trump and his supporters started calling the coronavirus the “Chinese virus,” the “Wuhan virus,” and the “Kung Flu,” inspiring a surge of hate crimes against Asian-Americans. A Trump super PAC has nicknamed presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden “Beijing Biden,” and the president sent out a campaign fundraising email that said, rather simply, “I am TOUGH ON CHINA and Sleepy Joe Biden is WEAK ON CHINA,” despite the fact that the president repeatedly praised China’s response to the pandemic—he tweeted in January, for instance, that the U.S. “greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency”—before deciding to reverse course and blame them. Now, in the middle of one of the deadliest health and economic crises this nation has ever seen, Republican senators are writing useless legislation in the name of “stop[ping] COVID” that basically amounts to campaign materials for Trump’s, and their own, reelection.
McSally’s and Blackburn’s home states of Arizona and Tennessee, meanwhile, both are experiencing massive spikes in cases. Tennessee has reopened anyway, and Arizona is reopening soon. We're not only in the middle of a pandemic—we're currently making policy decisions that will worsen it.
But McSally and Blackburn are more interested in the politics of the coronavirus than in stopping it. McSally is one of the most vulnerable senators up for reelection this year, as her race is currently a toss-up. Blackburn, the junior senator from Tennessee and a big Trump supporter, is not up for reelection, but she was a known bigot before penning the Blame China Act. As a congresswoman in 2017, she brought a neo-Confederate secessionist to deliver the opening prayer for the House of Representatives, and she won her Senate seat by running ads falsely claiming her Democratic opponent “lured illegal immigrants to Tennessee” by offering them driver certificates. So this is right in her wheelhouse.
There are a lot of helpful things lawmakers could be doing right now: Namely, getting PPE to health care workers, creating a strong front in support of social distancing measures, holding Trump accountable for his deadly lies and misinformation around the coronavirus, and making testing widespread and free to all Americans. This is a mammoth task all on its own: marshaling the upper limits of a federal government response for a once-in-a-century pandemic, and there’s no time for useless distractions. Other countries have managed to get their outbreaks under control by enacting strong public health measures—not pointing fingers at China. Instead, Republicans are using this moment to spread racism and xenophobia in their own political interest. It’s a shameful and craven abdication of responsibility, and, if voters want to better survive through this coming year, they should fire them all for it.
Laura Bassett is a GQ columnist.
At the start of the coronavirus outbreak, one ill-fated cruise ship became a symbol for the panic and confusion that would soon engulf the globe. Doug Bock Clark uncovers what two harrowing weeks trapped aboard the ocean liner felt like—for unsuspecting tourists, for frightened crew members, even for the captain himself.
Originally Appeared on GQ