Schools are shutdown. Spring Breaks have been extended. Schools that aren’t closing are applying social distancing and teaching online.
Layer that over an economy that will require at least a $3 trillion bailout– not a $1 trillion bailout–and you can understand why anxiety abounds. It’s par for America these days, and Trump, if nothing else, understands par. Par means everything in life is disrupted. But should that also include our diversity values?
If we are “all in this together” in crisis, why does the president keep playing the great divider?
At what has become daily briefings, Trump insists on calling the COVID-19 virus, the “CHINESE VIRUS.” He even has crossed out the right name and scrawled in “Chinese” in his scripts. He claims, doing so is a matter of accuracy. It does accurately describe his political animus and bias. But that’s different from the truth.
While he is right that the virus is suspected of starting from the live markets in Wuhan, China, he’s wrong to give the virus an “ethnicity.”
People have ethnicities. Germs are germs. The fact is, when an American is sick with COVID-19, he or she is infected as an American with unaffiliated germs looking for a human to infect. To call it a “Chinese Virus” is just racist.
While there is no vaccine for COVID-19 we do have a vaccine for the ignorance of xenophobia. It’s called knowledge. The president can use a little of that right now, instead of shooting from the lip as he did numerous times on live television last week. In one instance , ABC News reporter Cecilia Vega asked: “Why do you keep calling this the ‘Chinese Virus’? There are reports of dozens of incidents of bias against Chinese Americans in this country. Your own aide, Secretary Alex Azar, says he does not use this term. He says ethnicity does not cause the virus. Why do you keep using this? A lot of people say its racist.”
“It’s not racist at all. It comes from China,” said Trump, pronouncing the “Chi” syllable in an almost ugly racist way as he were a White actor playing Charlie Chan. “It comes from China, that’s why. I want to be accurate.” Vega continued to press her question, but Trump talked over her.
“I have a great. . . I have great love for all of the people from our country. But as you know, China tried to say at one point, maybe they stopped now, that [the virus] was caused by American soldiers. That can’t happen. It’s not going to happen not as long as I’m president. It comes from China.”
It was as if calling it “Chinese Virus” was a test of Trump’s manhood, as if Asian Americans need to be caught up in his masculinity battle with China’s Xi Jinping.
Since the global crisis began in January, Trump has been more concerned with pointing fingers at China instead of preparing for the way epidemics spread and become pandemics. Last week saw a dramatic about face from Trump, who suddenly stopped calling the virus a “hoax.” What explains it? Maybe someone made him watch sitdown and watch Matt Damon in “Contagion”? Trump seems to be going in the right direction, except for this name-calling thing.
It’s called COVID-19 precisely to avoid all the ugly xenophobia. The fact is the virus has spread, and the virus America is fighting is the virus Americans have on American soil. I doubt Trump has any compassion for Chinese patients in China. Therefore, it is not a Chinese virus causing the more than 16,000 cases in the U.S. with 215 death.
By the time you read this, those numbers will almost surely have grown exponentially. And it’s only the beginning. And that’s why this is no small thing. What the leader of the free world calls this virus matters. Especially if it means Asian Americans may be attacked by an anxiety-ridden American who in this national emergency has just lost his job, his loved ones, or his mind.
Time to fight ignorance again with a little Asian American history lesson. If you are Asian American, you’ve grown up with this all your life. Not just the Chinese, but the Filipinos, Koreans, Japanese, Vietnamese, Indians, and Pakistanis. There’s a xenophobic name for every one of us. There’s even a favorite one Americans used during the forgotten Philippine-U.S. war, the adjunct to the Spanish American War, when Filipinos were the original “gooks.” It’s an historical “one-slur-fits-all” word.
That’s our past.
In this national COVID-19 emergency, the phrase “Chinese Virus” harkens back to our slur-ridden past. It shouldn’t be our present. If Trump claims to love all us Americans, it’s time to show it. After all, on our soil, we’re all in this together, as the president likes to say. But it requires us to master the diversity lesson to end all diversity lessons.
Emil Guillermo is a journalist and commentator. He writes for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. You can follow him on Twitter @emilamok.