As Donald Trump has had to face the health and economic ramifications of the rapid spread of coronavirus in the United States, his use of the term “Chinese virus” has ramped up along with it.
White House officials are referring to the virus as “kung flu”, while the White House earlier today accused critics of seeking to “divide Americans” and “rooting for us to fail”. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has routinely referred to it as the “Wuhan virus”.
The racist rhetoric is consistent with a line that many Trump supporters believe he should have been taking all along — use the virus to reinforce his core messages against China, free trade and globalisation.
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Trump’s failure to initially use the virus to bolster his basic message of xenophobia has puzzled and angered many supporters.
Trump isn’t alone. The Chinese government has been peddling conspiracy theories that the virus is of US origin for a number of weeks: its foreign ministry has suggested US troops brought the virus to Wuhan, the epicentre of the virus in China.
In India — a land now wracked by xenophobia and religious conflict — politicians have claimed the virus was a Chinese bioweapon. Inevitably, the Putin regime has also peddled conspiracy theories blaming the Americans for the virus because it “only affects the Mongol race”.
Indeed, linking viruses to an external “other” — usually another ethnic group, country, or species — has until recently been normal in how societies respond to pandemics. Famously the influenza pandemic of a century ago is still falsely called “Spanish flu” despite the fact that it was killing people in Anglophone and other European countries before it was reported in Spain.
Wartime censorship in those countries saw those deaths covered up, while the press in Spain — a non-belligerent — were free to report the spreading epidemic, which may have originated in the United States.
References to a 2009 “swine flu” influenza outbreak as having been sourced from pigs led to the wholesale slaughter of pigs around the world, despite the virus being spread through human-to-human contact.
The racial characterisation of coronavirus by powerful figures significantly increases the likelihood of hate crimes against people of Asian descent everywhere. Recent weeks have seen an upsurge in verbal and in some cases physical assaults on people of apparent Asian origin in the United States and elsewhere, including Australia.
Authority figures like Trump and Pompeo are effectively normalising racial rhetoric and legitimising longstanding xenophobic sentiments against non-white people as somehow predisposed by race or cultural practice to being “dirty” and disease carriers.
For China, there are more geopolitical stakes in play — the Beijing tyranny is anxious for people to forget its initial efforts to cover up the virus and persecute those trying to raise the alarm, and portray itself as having skilfully managed to overcome the challenge and return to its long-term growth path despite the relentless hostility of the United States, which has even stooped to deliberately spreading lethal viruses within its borders.
Both are motivated by politics, and neither care about the damage they will inflict in pandering to xenophobia.