Ted Lieu: Trump is stoking xenophobic panic in a time of crisis

March 18, 2020
Opinion: Op-Eds
Ted Lieu, a Democrat, represents California’s 33rd Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

I genuinely want President Trump to succeed in stopping the spread of the novel coronavirus, and will do everything I can to help him in this effort. At stake are the lives of my elderly parents, my family, my constituents and many Americans. But Trump’s repeated insistence on calling coronavirus the “Chinese virus” is more than just xenophobic; it causes harm both to Asian Americans and to the White House’s response to this life-threatening pandemic. I served on active duty in the U.S. military to defend the right of any American to make politically incorrect statements, but as a public figure, I cannot stand idly by while the president uses his pulpit to exacerbate xenophobia in a time of crisis.

Trump claims that in using the phrase “Chinese virus,” he’s just trying to be “accurate” in describing where it’s from. But there is a difference between saying the virus is from China and saying it is a Chinese virus. In a time of unease and uncertainty, such language stokes xenophobic panic and doesn’t get us closer to eradicating this virus. Asian Americans have been assaulted or otherwise discriminated against because of such rhetoric. In New York, a man assaulted an Asian woman wearing a face mask and called her a “diseased b---h.” Also in New York, a man on the subway sprayed an Asian passenger with Febreze and verbally abused him. On the subway in Los Angeles, a man ranted at an Asian American woman, claiming Chinese people are putrid and responsible for all diseases. (The woman happened to be Thai American.)

Trump’s rhetoric adds fuel to the growing fire of hatred being misdirected at Asian Americans. The fact that he is the president of the United States, who is responsible for the well-being of all Americans, only makes his rhetoric even more disturbing. The leaders of both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization have warned that we should not use terms such as “Chinese virus.” The novel coronavirus already has an official name, SARS-CoV-2, and an unofficial name, covid-19. Injecting an ethnic qualifier to the virus is unnecessary and can stigmatize Asian Americans.

Against the backdrop of Trump’s unnecessary language lies the history of discrimination against Asian Americans in our country. From the Chinese Exclusion Act to the internment camps of World War II to the murder of Vincent Chin, Asian Americans are particularly susceptible to being discriminated against by the mistaken belief that we somehow are foreigners or have foreign ties.

It was myopic thinking to pretend this was a foreign virus that wouldn’t become our problem, and it has contributed to our present frantic efforts to play catch-up. On Jan. 22, Trump was asked on CNBC, “Are there worries about a pandemic at this point?” He responded: “No. Not at all. And we have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”

Trump’s weak initial response of only barring foreign nationals — either from China or who had visited China — from entering the United States allowed Americans traveling from China and anyone from Europe to enter the United States with the virus. The president’s view that the virus was a Chinese problem contributed to his failure to understand the importance of testing people domestically for the virus and of having enough medical equipment to deal with the outbreak.

We are still woefully short of test kits across the United States as well as the chemical reagents necessary to process tests. The coronavirus has spread exponentially as a result, and if that is not mitigated, we will not have enough ventilators for the patients who need them to stay alive. Hospitals and first responders are starting to run out of personal protective equipment — essential for keeping them healthy and safe.

One country that can help happens to be China. Though the Chinese government certainly made mistakes at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, we can learn a lot from Chinese doctors and scientists who were on the front lines of this crisis and also cooperate and get vital medical equipment and supplies. China recently sent doctors, ventilators, face masks and protective suits to Italy.

For the president to continue using rhetoric that the Chinese find insulting is not helpful. It is not one country’s problem to solve. We are in a worldwide, life-threatening pandemic, and we all need to work together. I wish the president could set aside his xenophobia for the moment while we try to keep Americans from dying.