The politicization of Covid-19 has complicated efforts to fight it, as exemplified by leaders of the two nations that have been most severely ravaged by the disease: the United States and Brazil.
(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.
Texas Senator John Cornyn blamed China and its culture, “where people eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that.” In the same breath, he falsely linked previous disease outbreaks to China. Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, like Cornyn a Republican, said: “China’s people are sick because the Chinese system is.”
Yet as The New York Times reported in a deeply researched story on Sunday, June 28, “The Chinese health authorities had explicitly cautioned that patients were contagious before showing symptoms” as early as February.
Writing in the Washington Post, former White House speechwriter Marc Thiessen compared the virus to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks: “Both viruses and virulent ideologies fester in the fever swamps of totalitarianism and then emerge to kill us in our cities and our streets. Two decades ago, it was a terrorist attack; today, it is a once-in-a-generation pathogen. But in both cases, the lack of freedom in a distant land created conditions that allowed an unprecedented threat to grow, bringing death and destruction to our country.”
But Western policymakers are confronted with the fact that highly centralized and authoritarian systems such as those in China and Vietnam have done a better job of containing the virus, through contact-tracing and strict lockdowns.
Senate Republicans last week said the United States should demand compensation from China for the disease, which has wrought far more damage in the United States than in China. The White House and its Senate allies are demanding sanctions on Chinese officials, and Trump has banned Chinese university students with ties to the Chinese military. Democrats too are jumping on the anti-China bandwagon. The call in the Senate for “reparations,” unlikely to pass with Democrats in control of the House, would be unenforceable at any rate — in what forum? — and could open the United States to lawsuits — in what forum? — for deporting people with Covid-19 to countries throughout the Americas, Africa and Asia.
The anti-Chinese sentiment has led to violent attacks on Asians in the United States, Europe, Australia and elsewhere. Asian college students have been beaten up in the United States. A Burmese-American man and his two small children were stabbed in Texas in April because the attacker claimed they were infecting people. Asian-owned stores have been vandalized.
Stop AAPI Hate, a group tracking racist incidents against Asian Americans during the pandemic, reported that by May 13 about 1,900 acts of discrimination against Asian Americans had been documented in the United States.
Underlying it all is the hope of Trump and his allies to turn the world against China and hurt its geopolitical ambitions, which have expanded in recent years as it rivals the United States economically, technologically and militarily, particularly in China’s sphere of influence.
The American ‘Threat’
In a counterargument, China and its allies have politicized the pandemic and turned it against the United States and all that they say it stands for: U.S.-style government, selfish free-market capitalism and imperialism.
Long before this pandemic, China had discarded its long-held docile and quiet approach to world politics and was easing away from the maxim of Deng Xiaoping, who said it was best to “hide your strength, bide your time.”
Since the previous global crisis, the 2008 financial meltdown, China has begun to see itself not only as the world’s ascendant economic power but as a military and diplomatic force to rival the world order established by the United States after World War II.
But the pandemic has been a huge test for Chinese leadership, because it placed China squarely at the center of a global crisis for the first time since World War II and Chinese Revolution that followed it. The pandemic is shining a glaring light on China’s secretive one-party Communist government, its internal problems and global ambitions.
Seeking to divert attention from itself, China has resorted to the politics that come naturally to the old Cold War superpowers, the United States and Russia: propaganda, disinformation and saber-rattling.
By March 11, when the World Health Organization declared the new coronavirus a pandemic, China was proffering a new theory about how the virus had emerged in Wuhan: It was a U.S. bioweapon.
Scientists almost universally agree that the coronavirus emerged from nature in China —probably transmitted from bats to another animal, probably a mammal, before infecting humans — and that it was not manufactured in a lab.
On the rebound from U.S. diplomatic attacks, Zhao Lijian, a brash spokesman for China’s foreign affairs ministry and the embodiment of China’s new tough-talking “wolf warrior” diplomatic corps, went on Twitter to push a theory that the virus was brought to Wuhan in October by U.S. soldiers who participated in the 2019 Military World Games that happened to take place in Wuhan.
The Military World Games are a military version of the Olympics.
This theory was promoted by the Centre for Research on Globalization, a Canada-based website run by a professor and conspiracy theorist at the University of Ottawa. The center pushes anti-American conspiracy theories and anti-capitalist attacks.
“This article is very important to each and every one of us,” Zhao tweeted on March 13, linking to an article published by the Canadian website. “Please read and retweet it. COVID-19: Further Evidence that the Virus Originated in the U.S.”
Chinese diplomats around the world followed his lead and promoted the article, which has been removed. The Canadian website, though, has published similar pieces.
Months later, China continues to say that the United States is hiding something — echoing U.S. claims about China. Chinese officials are demanding that the United States provide health information about soldiers who participated in the Wuhan military games, and open for inspection the U.S. military’s biological laboratories around the world, including its most famous one at Fort Detrick, Maryland.
China has been shipping medical equipment and teams of doctors to hard-hit countries in an effort to win hearts and score political points through the use of “soft power.”
China deployed this tactic in Italy when a Chinese medical team made a splash as it arrived in Milan on March 19, nine days after Italy declared the world’s first nationwide lockdown. A top Chinese Red Cross official said at a news conference that he was shocked by the number of people he saw going about walking, jogging and riding on buses without masks.
Italy listened and clamped the country down.
China’s efforts in Italy are paying off: A new survey found that 25% of Italians feel that China was their ally at the height of its outbreak, while only 4% feel the European Union helped at Italy’s time of need.
China also is using the U.S. failure to contain the virus as evidence that the U.S. system of government has failed.
Way back in March — three months ago — Zhao, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, taunted the United States with this tweet: “As a Chinese saying goes, ‘Turn inward and examine yourself when you encounter difficulties.’ We urge the U.S. officials to respect facts. Every minute wasted on smearing and complaining would be better spent on enhancing domestic response and international cooperation.”
On June 24, Zhao issued this tweet aimed at Secretary of State Pompeo and the United States: “With incompetent epidemic response, economy recession, serious systemic racism, social disturbances, drug abuse and gun violence, I wonder why Pompeo still has confidence and courage to point fingers to China? I advise him to address domestic affairs first.”
Turning the Pandemic Into an Opportunity
Authoritarian leaders around the world have used the pandemic to pursue their political goals. Sometimes ruthlessly. They’ve done it by downplaying the threat posed by the virus. They’ve also used lockdowns and restrictions to go after their enemies.
In Brazil, imitating his ideological ally Trump, far-right President Jair Bolsonaro dismissed the coronavirus and refused to impose a lockdown, a move welcomed by the industrialists and businessmen that back him.
“After being stabbed, no little flu is going to take me down,” Bolsonaro said on March 28, referring to the stabbing he suffered during his run for the presidency.
Bolsonaro has repeatedly brushed off the virus, calling it a “small crisis” and “hysteria” cooked up by an imaginative, left-wing media. He even declared that Brazilians are immune from diseases and that “God is Brazilian.”
His hardcore supporters in Latin America’s largest country called the virus a lie and a communist plot, dubbing it the “comunavirus.”
When Brazil’s outbreak exploded and the bodies kept piling up, protests broke out and Bolsonaro’s poll numbers sank. By late June, Brazil trailed only the United States in confirmed infections and deaths: more than 1.4 million infections and more than 58,000 deaths — both numbers about half those reported in the United States.
Despite this mounting toll, Bolsonaro has intensified his attacks upon the judiciary and other government institutions he despises — though he leads them. Bolsonaro has handed over to the military Brazil’s response to the pandemic. He fired one health minister who advocated social distancing, and a successor quickly resigned, replaced by a military general. Bolsonaro’s cabinet is stocked with military officials.
Now there are fears that Bolsonaro, a former Army captain, will use the military to stage a coup. Bolsonaro, his sons and allies are under investigation for corruption and the Superior Electoral Court could even overturn his election if it finds his sons used disinformation and defamation to help their father get elected in 2018.
“It’s no longer an opinion about if, but when this will happen,” the president’s son, Eduardo Bolsonaro, said recently about a military takeover. Still, many experts don’t believe a coup is imminent.
Bolsonaro’s drive to cut down more of the Amazon rainforest to clear the way for soy farming has not been delayed by the pandemic. Deforestation jumped by 51% in the first trimester of 2020 compared to 2019, when Bolsonaro took office.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the planet
In India, the pandemic has been politicized in a more overt way, by targeting Muslims.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a Hindu nationalist whose government is carrying out extreme anti-Muslim policies, including a discriminatory citizenship law. He stirred up hatred against Muslims even before the pandemic, including military oppression in Kashmir.
Mobs of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata supporters have attacked Muslims since Modi’s party took power in 2014. In February this year, Hindu mobs attacked Muslim neighborhoods in Delhi, leaving 53 dead and hundreds wounded. Delhi police participated in the violence.
Jayshree Bajoria, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a May 1 report that calls for boycotts of Muslims erupted after the government said clusters of infections were found among Muslims who had attended a mass religious gathering in Delhi with Tablighi Jamaat, a fundamentalist Islamic missionary movement.
Modi and his Hindu nationalist party whipped up rage by accusing the missionary group of deliberately spreading the virus. Party leaders blasted the gathering as a “Talibani crime” and an act of “corona terrorism.” Next, large media outlets called it “CoronaJihad” and “the hashtag went viral on social media,” Bajoria said.
In an April report, Human Rights Watch said Islamophobia led to an attack in Delhi on a 22-year-old man accused of conspiring to spread Covid-19. Human Rights Watch said Muslim herders in Punjab were forced to throw away hundreds of gallons of milk “because of rumors that they were spreading coronavirus through milk.”
In a June interview with Open Democracy, Arundhati Roy, an acclaimed Indian writer and human rights activist, said Muslims were living in a “genocidal climate.”
Roy said Indian television dedicates entire shows to “Covid Jihad.” She said Muslims were denied entry to hospitals and Modi’s party members were calling for boycotts of Muslim fruit and vegetable vendors.
“The language being used by the mainstream media against Muslims was designed to dehumanize them,” she said. “To paint an entire community as ‘corona jihadis’ during this pandemic, when there is a preexisting atmosphere of violence against Muslims is to create a genocidal climate.”
She added: “It was terrifyingly similar to how, during the rise of the Third Reich, Nazis began accusing Jews of being spreaders of disease, carriers of typhus.”
It’s so easy to cast blame
Around the world, the pandemic has given authoritarian governments an opportunity to crack down on political opponents and critics.
In Cambodia, authorities have arrested and threatened scores of people on bogus charges, claiming they had spread “fake news” about the virus. Among those arrested are members of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party opposition, a child, people taking to Facebook to criticize the government, and journalists.
“The Cambodian government should stop using the world’s attention on the Covid-19 pandemic as cover to crack down on the opposition,” said Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.
Prime Minister Hun Sen said the Cambodia National Rescue Party was using the pandemic to “cause chaos.” His government passed an emergency law granting itself sweeping martial powers during the pandemic.
In Bangladesh, the government, run by the Awami League, has cracked down on critics of its response to the pandemic, arresting cartoonists, journalists and activists. Authorities said the critics were hurting the nation’s image and causing disorder.
“It is only an insecure and authoritarian government that uses a pandemic to arrest cartoonists, journalists, and activists,” said Brad Adams, the Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
Conspiracies Flourish, Politics Become Poisonous
When the novel coronavirus began spreading around the world, conspiracy theories sprouted and spread with lightning speed, like the virus itself, around a globe already primed to disbelieve. And as conspiracy theories spread, public discourse was infected, and the virus was politicized.
Conspiracy Watch, a French group that analyzes conspiracy theories, created a world map that opens a window into this gnarled world of lies, racism, suspicion and paranoia.
In the Middle East, the virus is blamed on Jews and their allies in the West who are accused of seeking to tighten their grip on world power. Influential voices claim the virus was invented by Western pharmaceutical companies owned by Jews.
These conspiracy theories, not just in the Middle East, but in the United States as well, see a plot involving the world’s elite — among them Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft and a champion for vaccine research, and American-Hungarian billionaire and philanthropist George Soros, who is of Jewish descent. In a tired trope, these conspiracy theorists accuse Gates, Soros and others of trying to create a New World Order.
In Turkey, Abdurrahman Dilipak, a columnist for a popular Islamist media outlet Yeni Akit, feeds into this narrative with writings suggesting the virus was made in a Western laboratory to reduce the world population by sterilizing people with a not-yet invented vaccine. Others in Turkey, including influential politicians, claimed the virus was serving “Zionism’s goals” through population control.
In Iran, state-owned television accuses Israel of being “at the center of suspicion” of a lab-manufactured bioweapon. Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a hardline conservative who may run again for the Iranian presidency, wrote to the United Nations that the “mutated and intelligent coronavirus” was invented in labs as part of a plan by “Devilish/anti-human powers” to dominate the world.
In Yemen, suffering a catastrophic civil war and the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, leaders of the Houthi faction parrot Iran’s anti-American line and dismiss the virus as an American bioweapon. They have refused to impose a lockdown, because that would cut off income they need to fund their uprising.
There are concerns that Yemen is underreporting coronavirus cases. Yemen has reported only about 1,100 cases and 288 deaths. But countries around the world, not only Yemen, are surely underreporting virus cases and deaths, for numerous reasons, some political, some not.
“Americans have been working for years to benefit from the coronavirus,” Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, a Houthi leader, declared on television. “Of course, this is a criminal act, in every sense of the world.”
In Iraq, Shiite religious leader Moqtada al-Sadr, one of Iraq’s most influential men, declared the virus was linked to homosexuality and that same-sex marriage laws need to be repealed.
Similarly in Israel, Orthodox rabbi Meir Mazuz, a political and spiritual leader, claimed that the virus was divine retribution for gay pride parades.
African leaders too have politicized the virus. In Tanzania, President John Magufuli, a staunch Roman Catholic, chemist and African nationalist, declared that religious faith would defeat the virus and that traditional medicines, such as steam inhalation and a tonic made from the artemisia plant, could cure the infection.
“Coronavirus is a devil. It cannot live in the body of Christ,” Magufuli said in March. In June, as he sought, re-election, he said that the virus “has been eliminated, thanks to God.”
His government has been accused of selectively releasing data on how many coronavirus cases have been found in Tanzania, where a strict lockdown has not been imposed. His coronavirus strategy seeks to win the support of African nationalists, religious conservatives and businessmen.
The Comforts of Conspiracy
“Conspiracy theories in general are very comfortable to some people, because you have guilty people, in general a minority that can be powerful or not; you have a story, a group or someone responsible,” said Girel, the French philosopher.
This is particularly the case when the world is faced with a virus that is invisible, difficult to understand and so destructive.
“You have a phenomenon that it is so complex, so unknown, with many parts about it that are very, very difficult to imagine,” Girel said. “Falling back on conspiracy theories is very convenient; it is very comfortable, especially if you are already settled on your enemies or adversaries and you can paint them as responsible.”
He said the way the conspiracy theories about the coronavirus have flourished will be harmful.
“It is not neutral, and in general there are consequences when you have conspiracy theories. There will be victims at the end of the day.”
For example, he said conspiracy theories about prospective vaccines being used to sterilize or manipulate people online will discourage people from getting vaccinated against the virus — should a vaccine be found.
Surveys have found that about 25% of people in France and about 50% in the United States say they don’t want to take a vaccine against the virus if it becomes available.
“It is extremely concerning,” Girel said, “because in that case, if there is a vaccine and people don’t get vaccinated, the pandemic will resurface.”
This is the conclusion of a two-part series. Click here for Part I.