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Trump Ramps Up Racist Coronavirus Scapegoating

A firefighter disinfects the shrine of Saint Saleh to help prevent the spread of the new coronavirus in northern Tehran, Iran, Friday, March, 6, 2020. A Health Ministry spokesman warned authorities could use unspecified “force” to halt travel between major cities. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

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A firefighter disinfects the shrine of Saint Saleh to help prevent the spread of the new coronavirus in northern Tehran, Iran, Friday, March, 6, 2020. A Health Ministry spokesman warned authorities could use unspecified “force” to halt travel between major cities. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

You can’t say Democrats never learn. After President Trump asked Congress for a woefully inadequate $2.5 billion in emergency funding to respond to the coronavirus, Democrats, led by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, approved $8.3 billion, most of which was allocated for vaccine research. But the bill also included safeguards to ensure that Trump couldn’t once again steal the funds to advance his racist goal of building a wall along our southern border. The money can only be used to fight the coronavirus or other infectious diseases. 

It’s important that Democrats understand how Trump’s mind works, because his response to the spread of coronavirus has been anything but surprising, marked by obsession over borders, blaming Democrats and the media for his failures, and scapegoating immigrants and foreigners. 

While confirmed cases of the coronavirus continue to increase across the United States, Trump insists that the spread of the disease is under control, “because of quick action on closing our borders.” 

On January 31, the Health and Human Services Secretary, Alex Azar, announced temporary travel restrictions, preventing foreign nationals, except for immediate family members of U.S. citizens, and U.S. permanent residents, from entering the United States if they had traveled to China within the past 14 days. At the time, the majority of reported cases were still highly concentrated in mainland China. However, after the first case of community spread—meaning someone who contracted the disease without traveling abroad or interacting with someone who had—was reported in Washington state, Trump refused to adapt and instead announced an expansion of travel restrictions. 

The virus was already spreading within the borders of the United States, but Trump’s response was to pretend that the threat was alien and distant. He banned all travel from Iran rather than ramp up testing, increase hospital capacity, and create a clear, honest messaging strategy. The number of cases thus remains a total mystery. The official tally of confirmed cases is relatively low, but experts believe the number is likely much higher, due to the shortage of testing kits. It was only this week, going on two months after the first reported case in the U.S, that testing will be available in all 50 states. 

Nevertheless, this president would rather focus on keeping brown people out of the country, and pit his supporters against everyone else, than do the real work of slowing the spread of the virus. It is worth noting that today, there are more confirmed cases in Italy than in Iran, but beyond a “do not travel” warning, and screenings for those traveling from Italy, no travel ban has been issued for the European country. When Israel considered restricting travel from the United States and certain European countries that had responded to the virus slowly, the Trump administration objected strenuously—fearful the decision would underscore Trump’s failures—and used its clout to make sure Israel didn’t single out America. In other words, it strong-armed Israel out of imposing its own travel restrictions; the only legitimate restrictions, by Trump’s logic, apply to Asians, Iranians, and other non-white foreigners seeking to enter the U.S.     

The effectiveness of his measures have naturally been questioned by experts. “All of the evidence we have indicates that travel restrictions and quarantines directed at individual countries are unlikely to keep the virus out of our borders…I have never seen instances in which that has worked when we are talking about a virus at this scale.” Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo, a senior scholar at the John Hopkins Center for Health Security, said during a subcommittee hearing on Foreign Affairs February 5th.  

U.S. infections have begun growing exponentially, but Trump continues to downplay the global outbreak, at one point calling it the Democrat’s “new hoax.” This week, he accused the “fake news media and their partner, the Democratic Party,” of inflaming the global pandemic while also comparing the death rates of the coronavirus to those of the flu. 

But denying reality has become untenable, and Trump and his allies have thus turned to outright racist incitement. Rather than try to fix their mistakes, Republicans have decided to turn anger at the pandemic on other victims of the virus. For weeks, Rep. Paul Gossar (R-AZ), a notoriously bigoted, conspiratorial congressman, referred to the pathogen exclusively as “coronavirus.” When he placed himself in self-quarantine after coming in contact with an infected person at the recent right-wing CPAC conference, he adopted new language, tweeting, “who has since been hospitalized with the Wuhan Virus.” Gosar is not alone—scapegoating China for U.S. failures is now a talking point among a large number of prominent right-wing leaders

The World Health Organization (WHO) has said the virus may be reaching pandemic proportions as the “coronavirus has a foothold in so many countries,” and even as the number of cases has fallen in China, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has continued to call it the “Wuhan” virus, ignoring WHO guidance, and further inciting discimination against Asian communities. 

In a Monday news conference, Trump and Vice President Mike Pence spoke about all of the economic steps that will be coming in the days and weeks ahead, and of meetings that will be taking place with insurance companies, presumably to ensure that testing kits are covered. But our progress toward containing the virus, finding solutions, saving lives, and preventing our economy from collapsing can likely be measured in inverse proportion to the volume of the administration’s racist propaganda. And by that measure, we’re sliding into calamity.