The spread of the corona virus in the United States has fueled the destructive, xenophobic narrative favored by the Trump administration. Anti-Chinese racism and anti-Asian racism and violence in the broader sense have spread with the continued use of outdated monikers like the “Chinese virus” or the “Wuhan virus”.
While there are responses to public health and medical treatments that require isolation and physical distancing to curb the spread. The problem arises, however, when politicians – not medical professionals – set conditions for isolation and treatment and use crises as excuses to further demonize certain people, in this case foreigners from Asia or Europe.
We need to be vigilant to ensure that virus containment does not become a back door for containing or eliminating certain types of “unwanted” people, who are classified as dangerous or invasive.
If you portray people as dangerous contaminants, you increase the likelihood of dehumanization and elimination. This is the precarious situation we are in today, as the coronavirus is spreading in a time of deep polarization, xenophobia and “other” in many parts of the world, including the United States.
We use the idea of attacking 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 different type or order, it is often monitored and controlled by similar technologies, practices, and policies, and these overlaps have real consequences.
Containment is a strategy against those who are considered invasive others. Indeed, the concept of invasion is based on the metaphors of war and militarization: walls serve to build fortresses against such invasions.
For example, a fence built for invasive animals can easily become a boundary 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 on the grounds of keeping contaminated “Mexican” cattle infected with hoof and mouth diseases away.
When talking about different types of invasive others, the use of derogatory metaphors is common and a hallmark of the narrative used by the Trump administration. Trump’s split language is explicit and revealing; He said of immigrants, “They’re not humans, they’re animals, and we’re getting them out of the country at a speed and speed that has never happened before.”
Most recently, he called the corona virus a “foreign virus” that races it and attributes it to being different. Viruses are in fact equal opportunities and do not discriminate. Metaphors not only make certain associations conceivable, but also form the basis for measures that must be taken in response to them.
Under Trump, we now have immigrants – from children to adults – who have been detained violently in the dangerous areas where they have fled or have been held in places where the virus is sure to spread.
Once different types of “invasive others” are merged and accepted, practices that are used against one type of invasive can be used against another.
For example, in World War II, new quarantine and delousing technologies were used for hygiene purposes to exterminate Jews who were described as lice and a threat to the nation’s hygiene. In fact, it does not seem to be a coincidence that the chemical ultimately used in the gas chambers – Zyklon B – was already used in the 1930s to delous Mexican immigrants in the United States.
When comparing people to parasitic, viral, and other forms of low life that are capable of infection and contamination – if they become invasive in the same sense as the virus – there are prescribed responses, primarily of which purification or elimination takes place.
We need to be aware of these slips, as they can lead to new and increasingly dangerous forms of dehumanization and violence.
We have to recognize that there is no possibility of purity in this world. It’s contaminated in both the best and worst sense: our food and air may be spoiled, but we’re also part of a vibrant and diverse world. The search for purity can lead to violence of the deepest kind – the removal of “impure” people. We have to resist such distinctions to eradicate the hatred that is increasingly contaminating our world.
Miriam Ticktin is an associate professor of anthropology at the New School for Social Research. Suzette Brooks Masters is a Senior Strategist, Center for Inclusion and Affiliation, American Immigration Council.
SUBMITTED TO: covid-19
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