President Donald Trump and others have been emphatic in their use of the term “Chinese Virus” despite the World Health Organization designating it officially as COVID-19 over a month ago. An unidentified White House staffer finds it funny to call it “Kung Flu” right in front of an Asian American media member. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) doubled down and blamed Chinese people for eating bats, snakes and dogs, as well as placed blame on them for MERS and Swine Flu. MERS is short for Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome, and Swine Flu originated in North America.
It’s easy to see the racist elements of many of our leaders being further exposed. They fit the tradition of white men caught in their own failures who are seeking to deflect the blame elsewhere. They find the easy scapegoat in a racial minority group, in this case the Chinese.
Unfortunately, this scapegoating is leading others to take action on this blame game, leading to acts of violence against Asian Americans. This is no dog whistle, it is a screaming siren calling others to blame the Chinese and anyone who looks like them for what our country is going through collectively.
What is sad is that none of this is actually revealing. We already knew this about the president with his past demagoguery of Mexicans bringing drugs and crime and characterized as rapists or people coming from “Shithole countries.” No, none what we have seen with COVID-19 is revealing of the president.
COVID-19 has been more revealing about us as a country. What are our true values? This was laid bare when mayors and school districts around the country were forced to make the Sophie’s choice of whether to close the schools.
COVID-19 was just beginning to enter the rapid growth stages, and closing the schools is one way to try to blunt that growth rate. Closing the schools would mean much more than just a disruption of learning for millions of children, it would also mean many would go hungry because school is the only place where they can get a good meal every day.
The lack of significant sick leave for many employees means that many would be going to work, even if they are sick with COVID-19. This is especially true in the restaurant industry, where wages are often low and benefits slim, but the interaction with the public is unparalleled.
I know from having worked in restaurants throughout graduate school.
Unless I was in the hospital, I was at work. That one time at the hospital was because of an injury at work. Again, the impossible choice between getting paid or preventing the spread of a communicable disease.
We have reached the point where the decisions have been made. Schools and restaurants are closed. Concert halls are silent. Sports seasons have been postponed or canceled, including the annual national obsession of March Madness.
While this means a lack of entertainment for us all as we shelter in isolation, it also means the loss of work for thousands of support and production staff. People were counting on those events, including the custodial crews that would have cleaned up after the events.
As is often the case, there are heartwarming stories of individuals leaving large tips on their restaurant bills or the many athletes pledging money to help pay the stadium staff. But these stories, while they make us feel better, mask the reality for most that there will be no windfall to help them through this period.
Congress is now talking about giving out $1,000 or more to every adult. An economic stimulus payment, like Andrew Yang’s universal basic income concept, that would have been criticized as a resource to be exploited and abused by the stereotyped welfare queen. The people who most need this support also needed it just as much one month ago, without the threat of a deadly pandemic.
We shouldn’t need events like the COVID-19 pandemic to awaken us to the economic pain that too many Americans experience. COVID-19 has revealed the cruelty of our country, whether it is highlighting the Chinese origins of the disease, regardless of the potential for inciting violence against Asian Americans, or choosing not to help our fellow Americans because we buy into the racist trope of the welfare queen.
Perhaps as larger numbers of us experience the pain of isolation and economic uncertainty in the coming weeks to months, we might recognize how fragile our own existence can be.
We can all then maybe gain some empathy for those whose experience is not conditional upon a catastrophic pandemic, but part of their daily life. We need a society that enables children to miss a day of school and not go hungry at home.
David Inoue is executive director of the JACL. He is based at the organization’s Washington, D.C., office.