Commentary / World

COVID-19 and the lessons of xenophobia

by Shihoko Goto

The Globalist

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the old trope of “learning from history” has all of a sudden taken on an urgent meaning.

First, the lesson we should urgently learn is understanding how the 1918 flu — misnamed the “Spanish flu” — spread (and ultimately came under control). Then, it was to understand the lessons to be learned from the Great Depression and the difference effective policies can make to stabilize the economy. Now, there is a third dimension to what humankind should urgently learn to deal with better — the ugly face of xenophobia appearing in public policy making.

And indeed, there may be a great deal to be learned from a century ago about how the origins of hate and fear of others can result in bad public policy. One of the earliest steps that most nations around the globe took in response to the coronavirus outbreak was to close down their borders, or at least severely restrict who could pass through.

No doubt, this measure has been a scientifically sound approach to contain the virus. As a result, according to a Pew Research study, over 90 percent of the world’s population live in countries with a travel restriction. And yet, it is hard to imagine that this does not have a negative impact on how foreigners are viewed, even once the health crisis is over.

Social distancing has already led to an almost instinctive reaction to recoil from those outside of one’s immediate circle, which would only intensify further as familiarity decreases. And if only because of the prevailing nervousness, faces that look unfamiliar ethnically — even if they are native-born citizens — became the target of rejection and aggression.

At the height of the virus outbreak, remarks or instinctive silent reactions like “Oh, let’s cross the sidewalk, some Chinese people are walking our way” was a response not just found amid racists. It’s no coincidence that at a time when there’s a concerted effort to support the restaurant industry, Chinese eateries have been struggling since the first days of the pandemic and continue to find it difficult to drum up business.

The counter-response — the politicization of racial differences — has only made matters worse as it has added grist to those emotional barriers, especially for Asians. As much as China's leadership is trying to demagogue the issue, there is ample scientific data to prove that the origins of the new coronavirus can be found in China.

Moreover, Beijing’s aggressive strategy to challenge that fact — and pursue a strategy of plausible deniability — is foolhardy at best. China’s increasingly desperate attempts at self-cleansing (or “virus-washing”) are more than just a knee-jerk reaction against what it sees as Western hostility toward Chinese culture. It also smartly plays on Western feelings of guilt for past colonial transgressions.

For Asians and Asian Americans across the United States, the rising tide of xenophobia has been undeniable since the reporting of the first cases of the contagion earlier this year. Hate crimes against them have been on the rise. The Asian American Journalists Association released a statement in March pointing out that, since the full onslaught of COVID-19, there has been escalating violence as well as rhetoric against Asians. The association also cautioned that the repeated use of the term “China coronavirus” … could stigmatize populations associated with those places.”

To be fair, racism between Asians in Asia has been on the rise during the same period as well. Media reports of discrimination against Chinese nationals, from Chinese speakers being shooed away from restaurants in Seoul, and Chinese tourists being asked to stay elsewhere by Tokyo hotels, have been all too common.

At a time when the erstwhile allure of a liberal international order and U.S. leadership are both taking a hard hit, it is imperative for Washington in particular to take a firm stance against the rising tide of racism. One of the unshakeable strengths of American exceptionalism remains the U.S. Constitution. Its 14th amendment in particular guarantees equal protection by law, and hence rejects discrimination against people of various groups.

It will be closely watched from around the globe whether the United States will be able to stand up against racism. So will its ability and preparedness to push back against the inevitable backlash against Asians worldwide as lockdown measures across the globe begin to loosen up.

The economic and the social fallout from the Corona pandemic hardly bodes well for global growth in the near term. Focusing on an economic recovery that is as swift and as widespread as possible should be the priority of any government. Why? Because it keeps the calamity of the pandemic from turning into an outright catastrophe. Yet, for all the significance of the economic domain, the rising fear of outsiders, real and imagined, should not be neglected either.

If history is to serve as a guide, xenophobia must be treated as a grave risk that is as contagious and as deadly as any virus. Tearing down the mental borders between nations and cultures that have been built up during the lockdown will be no easy task. Left unchecked, they could rise to become the source of the next global crisis.

Shihoko Goto is deputy director for geoeconomics at the Woodrow Wilson Center and a senior editor at The Globalist. www.theglobalist.com

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