The spread of the coronavirus into the United States has fueled the destructive, xenophobic narrative favored by the Trump administration. Anti-Chinese racism, and anti-Asian racism and violence more broadly, have spread with the continued use of outdated monikers like the “Chinese virus” or the “Wuhan virus.”
To be sure, there are public health responses and medical treatments that require isolation and physical distancing to curb the spread, but the problem arises when politicians – not medical professionals – set the terms of isolation and treatment and use crises as excuses to further demonize particular people, in this case, foreigners from Asia or Europe.
We must be vigilant to ensure that containment of a virus does not become a backdoor to containing or eliminating certain types of “unwanted” people because they are deemed dangerous or invasive.
When you depict people as dangerous contaminants, you make dehumanization and elimination more likely. This is the precarious situation we find ourselves in today with the coronavirus spreading in a time of deep polarization, xenophobia and “othering” in many parts of the world, including the United States.
We use the idea of invasive to describe many things today: from people to pathogens, from plants to ideas. Once something is described as invasive – even if it is of a very different kind or order – it is often patrolled and controlled through similar technologies, practices and policies, and these overlaps have real consequences.
Containment is a strategy used against those considered invasive others. Indeed, the notion of invasion draws on the metaphors of war and militarization: walls serve to create fortresses against such invasions.
For instance, a fence built to contain invasive animals can easily become a border wall to stop or contain invasive people; this is in fact the origin of the US-Mexico border wall, which was initiated in Organ Pipe National Monument park in 1949 with the justification of keeping out contaminated “Mexican” livestock, infected with hoof and mouth disease.
When speaking of different types of invasive others the use of derogatory metaphors is common and has been a hallmark of the narrative used by the Trump administration. Trump’s divisive language is explicit and revealing; he has said of immigrants, “these aren’t people, they are animals, and we are taking them out of the country at a level and a rate that has never happened before.”
Most recently, he called the coronavirus a “foreign virus,” which racializes and attributes otherness to it. In fact, viruses are equal opportunity entities, and do not discriminate. Metaphors not only render certain associations thinkable, but also set the stage for actions to be taken in response.
Under Trump, we now have immigrants – from children to adults – forcibly detained in the dangerous zones they were fleeing or held in places where the virus is sure to spread.
Once different types of “invasive others” are conflated and accepted, practices used against one type of invasive may be used against another.
In World War II, for example, new technologies of quarantine and delousing for the purposes of hygiene were eventually used to exterminate Jews, who were described as lice and a threat to the hygiene of the nation. In fact, it does not seem accidental that the chemical ultimately used in the gas chambers – Zyklon B – had previously been used for delousing Mexican immigrants in the US in the 1930s.
When people are likened to parasitic, viral and other forms of low life, capable of infection and contamination – when they become invasive in the same sense as the virus – there are mandated responses, first and foremost of which is cleansing or elimination.
We must be aware of these slippages, as they can lead to new and increasingly dangerous forms of dehumanization and violence.
We need to recognize that in this world, there is no possibility of purity. It is contaminated in both the best and worst senses: our food and air may be tainted, but we are also part of a lively and diverse world. The search for purity can result in violence of the most profound kind – the elimination of “impure” people. We must resist such distinctions if we are to eradicate the hatred that is increasingly contaminating our world.
Miriam Ticktin is Associate Professor of Anthropology, New School for Social Research. Suzette Brooks Masters is Senior Strategist, Center for Inclusion and Belonging, American Immigration Council.
FILED UNDER: covid-19