“With China Virus spreading across the globe,” Kirk wrote, “the U.S. stands a chance if we can control of our borders.”
“Going up fast,” Trump added. “We need the Wall more than ever!”
When it comes to coronavirus, Mexico may find a wall more useful than we do. There have been more than 800 recorded cases in the United States but only seven in Mexico. Asked about the utility of implementing border checkpoints to try to control the spread of the virus during a hearing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, indicated that he hadn’t seen much use in such efforts.
“We had to find a name that did not refer to a geographical location, an animal, an individual or group of people, and which is also pronounceable and related to the disease,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said then. “Having a name matters to prevent the use of other names that can be inaccurate or stigmatizing. It also gives us a standard format to use for any future coronavirus outbreaks.”
Yet in recent days, a number of administration officials and allies of the president’s have used descriptors including “Chinese coronavirus” and “Wuhan virus,” referring to the metropolitan area in China were the outbreak first emerged.
Although media outlets such as CNN used terms such as “Wuhan coronavirus” before the World Health Organization named the disease, Fox News has in recent days used the “Chinese” descriptor in referring to the virus. Fox News host Tucker Carlson received some praise for accurately conveying the threat posed by the virus, but both on-air and in a tweet promoting the segment, he insisted on calling it the “Chinese coronavirus.”
There are two reasons allies of the president and members of his administration seem to be increasingly linking the virus to China. One is geopolitical; the other simply political.
The virus is a geopolitical pawn.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has repeatedly used “Wuhan” to describe the virus in recent days, spurring irritation from his counterparts in China.
“Despite the fact that the WHO has officially named this novel type of coronavirus, [a] certain American politician, disrespecting science and the WHO decision, jumped at the first chance to stigmatize China and Wuhan with it,” a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry said Monday. “We condemn this despicable practice.”
Pompeo appears to have been responding at least in part to efforts by the Chinese government to obscure or redirect the origins of the virus. The Post reported last week that China had been quietly encouraging the spread of conspiracy theories blaming the United States for the virus.
“We have pretty high confidence that we know where this began, and we have high confidence, too, that there was information that could have been made available more quickly and data that could have been provided and shared among health professionals across the world,” Pompeo said in a CNBC interview March 6.
Elected officials such as Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) have highlighted the geopolitical tension that runs underneath the outbreak.
“If you’re blaming America rather than the Chinese Communist Party for the coronavirus,” Gallagher tweeted in late February, “you’re flat out wrong.”
Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) used the term “Wuhan virus” when he announced this week that he was under voluntary quarantine after coming into contact with someone who later tested positive for the virus at a conference in Washington. That launched a ferocious debate over the use of the term, with critics suggesting that pointedly identifying the origin of the virus was racist. Gosar rejected that framing, retweeting a conservative activist’s insistence that “anyone who refuses to call this the Wuhan Virus or Chinese Coronavirus is helping the Communists’ attempts to rewrite history.” (Gosar also noted that media outlets had used the same term previously — although he didn’t mention that those occurrences were almost entirely before the disease was named.)
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), an established hawk on China, has repeatedly used “Wuhan” or “Chinese” to describe the virus.
Cotton has also gone further, suggesting without evidence that the virus escaped from a Chinese lab.
His focus is pretty clearly geopolitical, while Gosar’s is murkier. Others, though, seem to be directly aiming to shield Trump from criticism of his handling of the outbreak in the United States.
Trump allies want to deflect blame away from the president.
“Remember this is the Wuhan coronavirus that’s caused this,” Pompeo said in that CNBC interview, "and the information that we got at the front end of this thing wasn’t perfect and has led us now to a place where much of the challenge we face today has put us behind the curve.”
In other words, the U.S. response — his boss’s response — was hampered by China.
On Fox Business on Monday night, host Trish Regan distilled that line of argument: Democrats want to blame Trump but the real blame lies with China.
“The chorus of hate being leveled at the president is nearing a crescendo as Democrats blame him — and only him — for a virus that originated halfway around the world,” she said. “This is yet another attempt to impeach the president.”
In long thread on Twitter, Gallagher similarly tried to refocus blame from the administration to China, referring to the situation as the “Wuhan coronavirus outbreak.”
This isn’t a new refrain, that the Democrats are using the spread of the virus to play politics. It does seem as though efforts to connect it to China have become more common, however quietly. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) shared information Monday about dealing with the coronavirus — which he casually identified as the “Chinese coronavirus.”
What was most disconcerting about Trump’s tweet Tuesday, though, was his eagerness to use Kirk’s bad argument to defend building a wall on the border with Mexico and to imply that such a measure is useful in checking the coronavirus. The problem at the moment isn’t people traveling from China or people evading border-crossing stations on the border with Mexico. It’s that the virus is now uncontained in a number of places in the United States and spreading from American to American.
Noting that the virus originated in China may be useful as a point to pressure China, and it may be useful to those looking to deflect criticism from Trump. But it is not useful in actually fighting the virus and the disease it causes.