A few days before President Trump abruptly stopped calling COVID-19 “coronavirus” and began referring to it as “the Chinese virus,” Kim Tran was walking her dog down the street when a white woman walking the other direction began a bizarre performance. Stepping far away from Tran, the woman zipped up her coat, loudly sucked in a breath of air, and glared at Tran as she walked past.
As Trump tries to evade growing outrage at his response to the crisis, it doesn’t take complex analysis to understand why he’s begun to call COVID-19 — a bundle of proteins with no nationality — “Chinese.” Since Trump first tweeted about “the Chinese virus” on March 16, he’s used that term almost exclusively to refer to COVID-19.
Likewise, it doesn’t take a degree in ethnic studies to understand why Tran (who is Vietnamese) has noticed white people giving her glares. That said, it certainly helps that Tran has a Ph.D. in Asian American studies. Tran also runs a diversity, equity and exclusion consulting business. She says in the last few months, she’s already had to work with her clients to help them address growing anti-Asian sentiment in their cities and communities.
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“What we know about pandemics is that xenophobia often accompanies these big moments of stress on a public health system,” Tran says. “But the thing that makes this particular moment unique is that there is a very distinct history of anti-Asian [rhetoric] creating a relationship between Asians and illness or disease.”
Blaming “foreigners” for U.S. failures is a familiar strategy in the administration playbook. Indeed, as the novel coronavirus spread around the world, Trump first took aim at a familiar target: Mexico. In early March, Trump implied that Mexicans were to blame for the spread of the disease when he repeatedly claimed he had stopped the spread of the disease by closing the border (something he had not actually yet done). The strategy didn’t stick — perhaps because the U.S. had already registered over 1,500 cases of COVID-19 before Mexico confirmed its 10th patient.
Trump found greater success with his move to scapegoat China. Since he first started referring to COVID-19 as “the Chinese virus,” many other conservative politicians have begun to do the same. (Some, like Sen. Tom Cotton, had already been calling it the “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus” for weeks).
The grim power of the “Chinese virus” rhetoric comes from its deep resonance in the U.S. racial imaginary: Blaming Asians for illness has long been a fixture in U.S. history.
“In 1917, the Asiatic Barred Zone Act [which banned most immigration from the Asian continent] included the specific pretense of Asian people bringing disease,” Tran says. Earlier in U.S. history, the racist belief that Asian people carried disease also formed a key component of the first race-based immigration ban, the infamous Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
In the late 19th century, as inequality exploded on the West Coast, the robber baron class sought to scapegoat Asian immigrants for everything from low wages to diseases (which spread in rapidly urbanized cities). In this time period, white supremacists began to portray Asian immigrants as both genetically and hygienically inferior. As Nayan Shah writes in his book, Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown, “Public health authorities depicted Chinese immigrants as filthy and diseased, as the carriers of such incurable afflictions as smallpox, syphilis, and bubonic plague.”
Mark Tseng-Putterman, a writer and Ph.D. student of American studies at Brown University, explains how this racial stereotyping enabled the government to harass Asian people. Health inspectors sought to shut Chinese-owned businesses by targeting Chinatowns with “draconian health investigations.” And, on Angel Island (the West Coast equivalent of Ellis Island in the San Francisco Bay), Asian immigrants were subjected to superfluous and humiliating medical inspections that European arrivals never experienced.
“Disease was a convenient metaphor that masked the project of white supremacy and immigration exclusion in the language of public health and safety,” Tseng-Putterman says.
The long history of the white supremacist connection between Asians and disease means that, today, there’s a strong relationship between the two in the American psyche. Take, for instance, Texas Sen. John Cornyn’s racist rant from last week: “China is to blame [for COVID-19] because the culture where people eat bats, and snakes, and dogs, and things like that, these viruses are transmitted from the animal to the people and that’s why China has been the source of a lot of these viruses like SARS, like MERS, the Swine Flu,” the senator told a reporter.
Cornyn’s claims are, of course, nonsense. Swine flu likely originated in Mexico; and MERS is believed to have spread from camels to a patient zero in the Middle East. However, Cornyn’s comments lay bare the false belief in the U.S. that diets Westerners think of as “exotic” are to blame for disease (as well as false conceptions about what Chinese diets actually include).
“Knowing the history of anti-Chinese racism in the United States, it is quite shocking how durable these racial scripts are,” Tseng-Putterman says. “In the 1870s and 1880s, Chinese were demonized as rat eaters; almost a century and a half later, a video of a Chinese woman eating bat-soup was falsely circulated as ‘proof’ of the origins of COVID-19.”
Even though it’s yet unproven — and quite possibly false — the belief that COVID-19 spread to humans from a bat has already spread across the web. Tran tracks that “bat” motif back to a popular movie that had also spread like wildfire during the pandemic: contagion.
“In that movie, it’s a Chinese virus that kills a white woman, and that’s how the contagion begins — it’s a bat, and a pig,” Tran says, referring to a scene that traces the origin of the disease to a bat. “Even when you watch a really popular movie, you see the same thing. In America, it seems like all we’re capable of is, Asian diseases are gonna kill us.”
Tran points out the hypocrisy at play: “Across the world people eat animals. That’s not a new thing!” she says. “But we haven’t seen this around mad cow disease [which primarily affects the United Kingdom] — how many contagion movies have you seen around mad cow disease?”
Tran says that while these ideas exist in the American imagination, they have serious real-world consequences — especially when they’re proliferated from the highest office in the land. While Trump tweeted in defense of Asian Americans after facing a week of serious criticism, he has continued to call COVID-19 the Chinese virus.” Tran says such language has serious repercussions. “We’re seeing both a sharp uptick in anti-Asian racist rhetoric, and also physical violence,” Tran says.
Earlier this month, in New York City, a Korean woman was entering her own apartment when someone grabbed her by the hair and punched her in the face, shouting, “Where’s your fucking mask?” In Midland, Texas, a Burmese man and his son were brutally stabbed in a possible racist attack. Researchers have seen a sharp intensification in racism toward Asian Americans; the Southern Poverty Law Center has stated that it has seen “an increase in reports of bias-related attacks against Asians and Asian Americans in communities and online.”
Tran says that this pattern of attacks means that she — and other people who racists might assume to be Chinese — now have to deal with the threat of violence along with the already intense anxiety of the pandemic itself.
“Like everyone else, we’re really anxious and worried about our families,” Tran says. “But in America, we’re also getting blamed for it. I’m experiencing a pretty serious deficit in my own personal sense of safety. There is a sense of fear as I leave the house.”
Tseng-Putterman says that, while Trump’s rhetoric seriously contributes to racism against Asian Americans, it’s also important to note Trump’s more specific target: China itself.
“It’s important to stress that the dominant framing of COVID-19 has been primarily as a geopolitical issue,” Tseng-Putterman says. “The Trump administration is directing officials and media figures to refocus coverage on China’s alleged ‘cover-up.’”
As the Daily Beast reported, the White House has instructed the State Department to point to China’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak when asked about the virus, and to allege that the Chinese government’s early denial of the severity of the outbreak is to blame for why the virus spread around the world. (Contrary to the U.S.’s criticisms, the director-general of the World Health Organization [WHO] heaped praise on China’s response: “The speed with which China detected the outbreak, isolated the virus, sequenced the genome and shared it with WHO and the world are very impressive, and beyond words…. Thanks to their efforts, the number of cases in the rest of the world so far has remained relatively small,” he said in a January 30 statement.)
Besides Chinese immigrants, Americans also have a long history of demonizing the Chinese state. In a recent op-ed in The Washington Post, Matt Thiessen, a former Bush Jr. speechwriter, went so far as to compare the COVID-19 pathogen to the 9/11 terrorist attack, writing, “Both viruses and virulent ideologies fester in the fever swamps of totalitarianism and then emerge to kill us in our cities and our streets.” Thiessen’s fearmongering and his wordplay (“fester” and “fever swamp”) were both eerily reminiscent of the ways in which white supremacists in the late 19th century talked about China, as a supposed den of disease and danger. “The virus grew in the cesspool of Chinese Communist tyranny,” Thiessen writes.
Tseng-Putterman says that Trump’s attempts to blame China for supposedly failing is a clear attempt to obscure the U.S. government’s own significant failures to prepare for the outbreak.
“As the Trump administration plays on Yellow Peril and Red Scare tropes to offload critique of its own mismanagement onto China, it’s important to remember that the U.S. had more than a month to prepare before COVID-19 really hit the U.S. domestically,” Tseng-Putterman says. “China makes for a useful scapegoat to avoid facing that fact.”
It is one thing to notice the history of anti-Asian rhetoric; it’s another thing to resist it. Tran says that, in her diversity consulting practice, she’s focusing on clear steps organizations can take, including making forceful public statements that condemn racism and anti-immigrant violence and hiring knowledgeable equity advocates.
As for individuals, Tran says “allyship and solidarity are more important than ever.”
“A form of allyship that is both interpersonal and structural is key,” she says, suggesting support for Asian-owned businesses and organizations. (While there is no difference in the possibility of exposure between Asian and non-Asian businesses, all people should practice thoughtful social distancing precautions regardless of where they shop during this period of necessary self-quarantine).
Tran also says that people should resist anti-Asian rhetoric by resisting it in their own circles and that people should educate others on the deep roots of the racist connection between Asians and disease.
“If someone in your family calls it ‘Chinese virus,’ correct them — and explain why,” Tran says.