(CN) — A new chapter in the long and depressing history of politicizing disease is unfolding during the coronavirus pandemic, with political leaders around the world and their followers engaged in dangerous scapegoating of ideological, religious and ethnic enemies.
Plagues have a long history of bringing out prejudice, hatred and racism in humanity, most infamously during the Black Death in Europe when thousands of Jews were massacred by Christians who saw them as evil outsiders “poisoning wells” to spread sickness.
This ugly side of humanity has not been miraculously erased despite nearly universal education and stunning scientific advances over 670 years. Indeed, in many ways this era of instant digital communication and conspiracy theories is revealing that society's ability to turn a disease such as Covid-19 into a political bludgeon may be even easier to do than in the past.
“In general, when you have a huge epidemic, or pandemic, it can be used as a kind of weapon in propaganda or information wars,” said Mathias Girel, a French philosopher at the École Normale Supérieure, a Paris university, in a telephone interview with Courthouse News.
“The pandemic was instrumentalized; it was used as a political weapon; it was even the object of denial for some time by the people in charge, by some governments,” Girel said, referring to announcements by President Donald Trump and his backers, such as Fox News hosts Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson, who portrayed concerns about Covid-19 as overblown, media-manufactured “fake news,” designed to hurt the Trump administration and help Democrats win back the White House.
Those claims have become hard to sustain as the United States leads the world in viral deaths, with 128,500, and infections, with 2.6 million — a death rate of 5%.
Worldwide, 10.2 million Covid-19 infections have been reported, and more than 504,000 deaths — the same fatality rate as in the United States: about 50 times higher than the 0.1% fatality rate of the seasonally changing common flu.
Experts say that all statistics of Covid-19 are surely undercounts, due to lack of testing, inadequate resources and government pressures. Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, for example, ordered his ministries to stop reporting virus infections and deaths this month, but was overruled by his supreme court. And President Trump has said repeatedly that if the United States stopped testing people for the virus, the new cases would “go away,” which is surely true, on one level, not including reality.
Here, in brief, are some of the ways the pandemic has been turned into a dangerous political weapon around the world, fueling “Yellow Peril” sentiment in the United States, anti-Semitism in the Middle East and anti-American feelings in many countries.
The Chinese ‘Threat’
More than most other countries, the United States has politicized Covid-19 by turning the pandemic into a full-throated attack on China, its communist government and its culture.
“Since the outbreak of Covid-19, state, media and internet actors have produced an array of narratives racializing the disease by emphasizing similar ideas of Chinese infiltration, despotism, and deviance,” Ju-Hyun Park wrote in a recent essay for the Evergreen Review.
Trump and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have repeatedly tried to turn the pandemic into a Chinese monster. Early on, Trump called the disease the “Chinese flu,” and he used the even more inflammatory term “Kung flu” at campaign rallies this month in Tulsa and Phoenix — two emerging viral hot spots, where thousands of his supporters eschewed masks.
Trump and Pompeo have claimed without evidence that the pathogen came from a virology laboratory in Wuhan, China, and that the Chinese government hid information about the outbreak. Other Republicans have escalated the anti-Chinese rhetoric, calling China a “pariah state” and “evil.” This despite the fact China, where the novel coronavirus emerged in December, has contained its national epidemic far more successfully than the countries of Western Europe and the Americas.