Was it faulty science or ethnocentrism that worsened the pandemic?

Was it faulty science or ethnocentrism that worsened the pandemic?
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As the number of COVID-19 patients alarmingly rises once again, Americans push into a new season of the pandemic that has claimed 228,000 lives. In tragic form, health professionals and scientists are estimating that perhaps as many as 210,000 lives could have been spared had the country implemented better testing protocols and appropriate risk reduction strategies early on.

With the coronavirus proving to be one of the most pressing election issues for many voters, President TrumpDonald TrumpIran claims U.S. to lift all oil sanctions but State Department says 'nothing is agreed' Ivanka Trump, Kushner distance themselves from Trump claims on election: CNN Overnight Defense: Joint Chiefs chairman clashes with GOP on critical race theory | House bill introduced to overhaul military justice system as sexual assault reform builds momentum MORE has attempted to deflect blame for the soaring numbers by lashing out at one of his favorite scapegoats: China. He’s still continuing to refer to the COVID-19 pandemic as the “Chinese virus” and “Kung Flu” in an attempt to morph the months-long domestic problem into an external attack. Not long after the outbreak, conspiracy theories spread that the Chinese government was directly responsible for manufacturing the virus, a line upheld by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and other Trump supporters. This logic maintains that it was the Chinese who forced the illness on Americans rather than a failure of leadership.

Making the domestic problem into a foreign threat, it turns out, is a tactic echoed by other Republican stalwarts. In August, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisTrump clash ahead: Ron DeSantis positions himself as GOP's future in a direct-mail piece GOP governors embrace culture wars with White House in mind Cruise ships eager to set sail after court victory MORE (R) made the unusual analogy between opening the state’s schools and the Navy SEAL operation that killed Osama bin Laden. The comparison was meant to mobilize Floridians to enlist themselves in the fight against the coronavirus, as the nation did against terrorism, by sending their children back to school.


But Trump’s finger pointing at China emerged concomitantly with a wider misreading of the greater Asian battle against the virus. As they saw it gradually claim more victims in the winter, U.S. health experts advised to wear a mask only when infected. They largely dismissed the practice of Chinese and other Asian citizens who were mandated to wear coverings all the time. Americans were told that Asians wore masks in order to follow a group mentality and avoid stigmatization. The impetus was more cultural than scientific. “They” do it this way, while “we” do not. Even as Chinese health experts urged the United States and Europe in the spring to embrace mandatory masks, Western authorities recoiled at the notion. The real tragedy is to think of how many lives could have been saved had some of the foundational guidelines not been built by such ethnocentric biases.

In both blaming the Chinese and doubting their preventative measures, Americans created a double-edged pandemic sword that has cut its way through the fabric of the nation. The slicing has included an uptick of verbal and physical attacks against Asian Americans. Though the House of Representatives voted to condemn such verbiage and violence, the damage was already done. When taking a historical step back, these assaults fit within a history of racism against those of Asian origin. Today’s sentiment falls in the legacy of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and its renewal in 1892 — the Geary Act — that required Chinese Americans to carry certificates of residence to prove they were in the United States lawfully. Fifty years later another chapter of “Yellow Peril” befell the country following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which led to the internment of 120,000 Japanese nationals and Japanese Americans. 

If we are to assign blame for the coronavirus elsewhere, we would do well to dust off our history books and reassess the origins of the influenza pandemic of 1918, which historians think might have begun in Kansas. If true, however, it is highly unlikely that the Spanish Flu will take on a Kansas or American appellation.

Eventually, the United States caught up with Asia in requiring mask wearing and social distancing, though far too many still flout these stipulations to disastrous ends. We’re still waiting for election results, and regardless of who wins, Trump will be known as having been bested by the pandemic. Given his statements through his campaign, one can only expect that a Biden victory would bring a different governmental approach to the pandemic. But more than that, it could bring back a discourse of racial tolerance and global community building in the White House, which as the coronavirus has shown, are necessary for survival.

John A. Gronbeck-Tedesco is an associate professor of American Studies at Ramapo College of New Jersey. Follow him on Twitter is @Professor_G_T.