Why a Race is Not a Virus and a Virus is Not a Race

It is dangerous rhetoric indeed when President Donald J. Trump calls the Coronavirus (COVID-19), the “Chinese Virus”. Even if the intent was political and meant to communicate to Beijing that the United States military was not responsible for the spread of the disease within China, contrary to a conspiracy theory there.

By the president naming the Coronavirus (COVID-19), as “Chinese”, has unnecessarily allowed for prejudice and racism into an epidemiological discussion about the consequences of a deadly pandemic and an increasingly growing tragedy for the United States and the rest of the world. Consequently, a couple of days later, President Trump seemingly retracted his former remarks by stating: “…It seems there could be some nasty language toward our Asian-Americans, and I don’t like that at all. These are incredible people and they love their country…”

Thus, as most know, a virus is not tied to any particular ethnic group or race. Nor does it have any religious origins. A virus is entirely agnostic and mindless. Its aim is contagion and replication, and has biologically evolved to attach itself to the most hosts possible. Even so, throughout human history ignorance has persisted and people have paired diseases with ethnic groups and particular populations. And if not disease, then other tragedies and unusual events.

Of course, the president was not alone in linking the Coronavirus (COVID-19) to China, or simply relating to it as solely a “Chinese Virus”. Ever since the pandemic has spread across the United States, racial incidents against Asian-Americans have been on the rise and have been widely reported across the country. In the initial stages of the spread, “Chinatowns” in many large cities such as San Francisco and New York City, were notably avoided. The ignorance about disease and race in popular mythology link the two together—even though nothing could be further from the truth.

As one woman, Trang, explained in a USA Today interview: “There have been a lot of people who just use this fear to justify racism against Asian people and to scapegoat Asian people for their fear of the Coronavirus.” As such, there is so much misinformation and so many urban myths among the general population, which has caused more unwarranted racial attacks against Asian-Americans. The FBI, in fact, has warned of an increase in hate crimes against Asian-Americans.

Likewise, many have used the Coronavirus to validate their own racist views. The New York Attorney General has launched a hotline for New Yorkers to report hate crimes associated with COVID-19. Additionally, the Asian Pacific Planning and Policy Council and Chinese for Affirmative Action, following its launching on March 19th, “has received more than 1,000 reports from people in 32 states detailing verbal abuse, denial of services, discrimination on the job or physical assaults” according to a recent LA Times article.

Unfortunately, throughout history, people have made similar mistakes by associating particular ethnic groups with epidemics. In the Middle Ages, for example, Jews were widely scapegoated for causing the “Great Plague”. As the “Black Plague” had spread across Western Europe by 1349 A.D., massacres of Jews increased on massive scales, “pogroms”, in such places as Aragon, Spain, and Flanders, Belgium as well as Jewish communities in Frankfurt, Mainz, and Cologne in Germany. Thousands of Jews were burnt at the stake, or were tortured into falsely confessing about poisoning city-wells.

In 1918, the influenza outbreak which caused as many as 50 million deaths worldwide was known as the “Spanish Flu”, and in all likelihood, was a misnomer. Scientists are still uncertain of the flu’s origins. It may have been spread from pig farms in the Midwest of the United States to U.S. military camps and then on to the killing grounds of World War I in Western Europe and elsewhere. It became known as the “Spanish Flu” because the Spanish media was free to report on the disease.

In relation to Asian-Americans in the United States, there is a long history of racism associated with disease. In 1900, in Honolulu, Hawaii, the Board of Health burned Chinatown there to the ground for fear of the spread of the plague whose residents included “3,000 Chinese, 1,500 Japanese, and 1,000 Native Hawaiian residents”. Similarly, in Reno, Nevada, its Board of Health Department demolished that city’s Chinatown because the area was viewed as “unclean” and “immoral”, making room for land development.

Aside from disease, there has been a long history of “Nativist” views against Asian-Americans with the “Chinese Exclusion Act” of 1882, which prohibited Chinese laborers from entering the United States, and a similar act, known as the “Gentleman’s Agreement of 1907”, limiting Japanese migration to the U.S. Moreover, following the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in 1941, mostly Japanese-Americans living the states of California, Oregon, and Washington, were relocated to internment camps during World War II.

Regrettably, the past xenophobia and racism experienced by many Asian-Americans still persists and has considerably worsened because of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) and the pandemic’s association to their ethnicities. In fact, many Asian-Americans are wrongly blamed for the virus.

Trump’s initial insisting that the Coronavirus was “not” racist because his labelling it a “Chinese Virus”, indicated according to him, its geographical location and country of origin. Whereas health experts, historians, and even the World Health Organization (WHO) emphasized how unhelpful it is to label a disease by its geographic locale. Such associations become blurred with particular ethnic groups and may lead to xenophobic violence, as evident in recent reports and in the past.

Former presidential candidate, Andrew Yang, stated in a recent NY Times interview about Trump’s use of the term as his way: “…to distract from his administration’s slow response to the Coronavirus.”

The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) has likewise perceived these negative associations of the disease and its association with racism. On its website, it informs parents how they might speak to their children about the Coronavirus (COVID-19) and the current stigma of Asian-Americans related to it. As NASP states: “Though the initial spread of COVID-19 occurred in China, it is important to inform children in a developmentally appropriate manner that the disease is linked to a geographic location and not to a race or nationality. People who identify as Asian American or Pacific Islander (AAPI) are currently being subjected to racism related to the COVID-19 virus.”

As Cornel West once observed in his renowned book, Race Matters (1993): “To engage in a serious discussion of race in America, we must begin…with the flaws of American society—flaws rooted in historic inequalities and longstanding cultural stereotypes. How we set up the terms for discussing racial issues shapes our perception and response to these issues.”

In my view too, we must recognize the “structures of violence” in society which have kept minorities oppressed. Until we deconstruct such barriers and reshape the public rhetoric, fears and scares will persist. Ethnic groups will be unfairly scapegoated.

As a society, we are better than this. We all deserve a United States of America where everyone is invited to the table and everyone participates in our democracy, even through great crises, as the one now, and not bumbling from unfounded fears.

J. P. Linstroth is a former Fulbright Scholar to Brazil. His recent book, Epochal Reckonings (2020), is the 2019 Winner of the Proverse Prize. He has a PhD (D.Phil.) from the University of Oxford. He is the author of Marching Against Gender Practice: Political Imaginings in the Basqueland (2015) and, most recently, author of Politics and Racism Beyond Nations: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Crises (2022).