The “Chinese” Virus: Made in America

Ayaan Sagar

In the midst of a pandemic, while the world was trying to unite, Donald Trump seemed to be aiming for the opposite. As our doors closed and the world isolated, a natural sense of community and binding together of the world community to combat the Novel Coronavirus   began spreading everywhere. Leaders and people alike took on the responsibility of spreading messages such as those of taking simple precautions ranging from handwashing to  ensuring social distancing. Meanwhile, in face of a rising caseload, Donald Trump, in his characteristic style, took a different approach.  The internet is rife with videos and soundbites of Donald Trump seemingly posing advice contrary to that of the top medical and health experts of his own White House. Suggestions on live National Television such as that of injecting Bleach as a way of combating COVID had to immediately be rebuked by the very makers of these products. . It was also observed that a large part of President Trump’s response was shaped by the motive to point fingers against the country where the virus originated from, China President Trump  labeled COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus”  While this may seem to be a hostile and perhaps unnecessary occurrence, a closer look at his political strategy indicates otherwise. For Trump, interestingly, his reaction was largely on point, both in the domestic and international context.

Over the past four years, the term  of the 45th President of America  has become synonymous with Twitter ramblings, peddling and support of conspiracy theories and false narratives, from perpetuating derogatory stereotypes by using phrases such as “Crazy Nancy,” to making diatribe attacks on his critics including famed celebrities such as   Meryl Streep, On the other hand, it can also be argued that these actions are completely rational and done for a particular purpose. To that end, an examination of the incidence of Coronavirus alongside the other momentous affair of 2020, that is, the 2020 Presidential Election, an affair whose outcome either way would have enormous ramifications on the very fabric of US Democracy, and the Global Order is necessary. As such, the reason behind his hardline stance and often offensive views is largely to appease his core support base. In 2016, Trump inched ahead in key battleground states by drawing support from white, rural and non-college graduate voters. As such, the framing of President Trump’s response to COVID19 has to be placed in the context of a  reelection bid falling squarely in the middle of an exceptional calamity. This time around too, Trump was banking on the same demographic to turn out in large numbers, given that they were in agreement with his deeply conservative yet bold narrative. However, polling, which went as far back the 2018 Midterm elections, foreseeing a huge gains for the Democratic Party,portrayed a sharp decrease among the women and senior voters in his base. The Grand Old Party’s reliance on conservative white voters is what allowed Trump to focus on a narrow agenda, unlike the Democratic Party which more often than not, is known for its reliance on a big-tent coalition of voting groups. The key issues that have dominated President Trump’s presidency have included immigration, domestic jobs and the domestic economy – essentially those promoting the idea of ‘America First.’, Arguably, it is this idea that successfully put him in the White House in the first place.Thus, following from this line, it seem but natural that Trump would choose to frame the response to the Pandemic as an attack against China, whose rise to power poses a counter to the idea of ‘America First.’

Especially at a time when America was disproportionately affected by the virus, Trump’s response was also shaped by a concern over the significantly negative impact of shutting down the country, and consequently, the debilitating impact on the economy  As such, criticisms over the administration’s virus response, which was increasingly being shaped in terms of reopening the economy, and not so much on the human costs of doing so,placing the blame on China offered a conduit by which to deflect criticisms.  . In recent years, Trump has accused China of stealing jobs, undercutting the American economy and threatening the democratic order of the world. Adding to this list, “Chinese virus” flows perfectly with his bid to make China the enemy in his supporters’ eyes. The prospect of spreading hostility against the Chinese, and by extension the Asian-American community, seemed to be an insignificant opportunity cost for him, knowing that  in a  reelection bid  that voting group is not his core group of supporters. 

At a diplomatic level, Trump used the opportunity to raise questions about China’s alleged covering up of the virus (concerns which may actually be valid). Through this, he also  sought to reinforce American dominance as the global player at an international platform. In the past, Trump was cautious while making statements about China, in order to prevent jeopardising the precarious US-China trade deal, also seen from his early praise of China’s Coronavirus response.  However, with the increasing caseload, a worsening situation both domestically and globally, no simple end or solutions in sight, and a concurrent reelection bid , the tune of President Trump’s response and rhetoric also duly changed.In his characteristically brazen manner, The President was not afraid speculating and deploying accusations of his own, often implying that the virus was created on purpose. Following his lead, the US delegation scrapped a G7 joint statement after the members of the group refused to use the term ‘Wuhan Virus’. Later, President Trump also initiated a move to leave the WHO and stop US contributions to the Organisation, a move which was highly criticised and seemed counterintuitive, as it would leave China with greater influence. All in all, Trump’s use of ‘Chinese’ or ‘Wuhan’ virus comes straight out of the Republican playbook, allowing him to deflect attention from his administration’s poor response. Whether his tactic was beneficial beyond this, especially for America’s global standing, remains doubtful.

 Ayaan Sagar is a 2nd year student studying Economics and Political Science at Ashoka University. His academic interests include Public Policy, Developmental Economics and Electoral Politics.


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