A man at the Times Square in in New York City on March 28, 2020. US President Donald Trump said on March 28, 2020 that he's considering a short-term quarantine of New York state, New Jersey, and parts of Connecticut. Image Credit: AFP

US President Donald Trump and some of his allies have made a point of calling the coronavirus a “Chinese virus,” the “Wuhan virus” or, simply, a “foreign virus.” Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas even suggested the Chinese had devised the virus as a biological weapon. They would like us to believe that the disease is like a foreign invasion, an alien attack on the people of the United States.

This type of rhetoric taps into ancient and primitive fears. When the plague, or Black Death, devastated the peoples of Europe in the 14th century, Jews, foreigners and lepers were widely blamed for it.

Coronavirus as metaphor

Such nonsense often had deadly consequences, as minorities fell victim to popular rage. But there are indeed cases where foreign invasions infect populations with diseases, as happened when Europeans brought smallpox, cholera and typhus to Native Americans, who had no immunity to them. This history lends a sinister irony to the current whiffs of xenophobia emanating from the White House.

There has always been a strong temptation among humans to lay the blame for epidemics on more fanciful things than fleas, rats or other carriers of deadly viruses. The idea of divine punishment is almost invariably lurking in the background. The Black Death was seen by many Christians in Europe as divine retribution for human greed, fornication and blasphemy. But usually punishment falls on one’s enemies. God punished the Egyptians [Pharaohs and people of earlier times) with 10 plagues because they refused to liberate the Jews.

A leader who applies chauvinism and prejudice to a frightening disease is not best equipped to deal with a pandemic. Nationalism should have no place in medical discourse.

- Ian Buruma

“Enemies” can be disliked minorities or people who don’t share the same faith. In the 1980s, the Rev. Jerry Falwell was by no means the only cleric to regard AIDS as God’s punishment of practising homosexuals. During the Ebola epidemic several years ago, evangelical Christians in Liberia called it a plague sent by God to punish unbelieving Liberians for corruption and immoral acts. In the United States, too, evangelical radio hosts warned that only true Christians had a chance of escaping divine wrath — perhaps that is why the Rev. Jerry Fallwell Jr. insists, against all medical advice, on keeping his Liberty University open.

The sick in this type of thinking not only suffer from illness but are stigmatised as sinners as well. This is what Susan Sontag was arguing against so strongly in her famous essay Illness as Metaphor. She spoke from her experience as a cancer patient.

It would be a mistake, however, to blame religious believers for all dangerous superstition. It was when scientific theories began to hold sway in the 19th century that odious ideas and hostility toward people outside the mainstream became truly lethal.

Health care workers screen patients for the coronavirus at Brooklyn Hospital Centre in New York on March 23, 2020. Image Credit: New York Times

Charles Darwin was a great scientist who is still detested by some devout Christians for his theory of evolution. But his thinking about natural selection sparked notions that were as alarming as the worst superstitions about sick sinners in the eyes of God. In 1881, Darwin wrote a letter to a critic of his theories named William Graham. He argued, “I could show fight on natural selection having done and doing more for the progress of civilisation than you seem inclined to admit.” Then comes this chilling sentence: “Looking to the world at no very distant date, what an endless number of the lower races will have been eliminated by the higher civilised races throughout the world.”

It was around this time that religious prejudice about Jews turned to biological racism. Jews could no longer be saved by converting to the Christian faith; they were doomed by their bloodlines. People who considered themselves serious thinkers believed that racial differences could be scientifically determined by measuring skull shapes. This line of thought found its most deadly expression in Nazi ideology that saw Jews and other supposedly inferior people as deadly viruses that needed to be destroyed lest they infect the healthy organism of the German Volk.

The mass murder that resulted was instigated by Germans. But there were plenty of scientists in other countries, including the United States, who believed that public health should be improved by eugenics — for example, by sterilising people thought to be defective in one way or another. Eugenicists want to rid the world of people deemed physically or mentally inferior. But the same kind of thinking can be applied to political enemies.

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In the Soviet Union, politics was medicalised by treating people who criticised the Communist government as mentally sick. The Marxist-Leninist system, after all, was supposed to be rational and scientifically sound. This meant that a person had to be insane to dissent, and he or he was therefore only fit to be locked up in an institution for the mentally ill.

Things have not gone this far in democratic countries like the United States. But there is a tendency, not least in the White House, to speak in Darwinian terms about sacrificing the old and sick in the current crisis for the sake of the economy. Worse still is Trump’s habit of dismissing his sceptics, critics and political opponents not only as “nasty” but also as “sick.” Democrats, Trump said at a rally last year, were “sick people.” Sickness precludes legitimate differences of opinion and reasonable debate, without which democracy cannot exist. Sick people must be excluded for the sake of public health.

Virus as a foreign attacker

This is why the idea of a dangerous virus as a foreign attacker is so dangerous. Even though Trump, no doubt on good advice, has now said that Asian-Americans are not to blame for the presence of the coronavirus, citizens assumed to be of Asian origin have already been attacked — sometimes physically — by people who took Trump’s words about a “Chinese virus” literally, as though COVID-19 were a Chinese attack on Americans.

A leader who applies chauvinism and prejudice to a frightening disease is not best equipped to deal with a pandemic. Nationalism should have no place in medical discourse. And medical language should never be applied to politics. Coronavirus isn’t Chinese or foreign; it is global. Blaming alien forces, whether in the name of God, or science or simple prejudice, is bound to make things a great deal worse.

— Ian Buruma is a noted editor. Much of his writing is focused on the culture of Asia, particularly that of China and 20th-century Japan.