Not a Chinese virus

Kanishk Tharoor | Updated on March 20, 2020

No show: At Times Square in New York, traffic is light, pavements are desolate, and bars, restaurants and cafes are shut or only offer take-out services   -  REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Associating universal maladies with other people is an age-old habit; the fact is, germs don’t carry passports, don’t need visas and are at home in most bodies, almost anywhere

A cliché of public health has it that germs don’t respect borders. The speed with which the novel coronavirus has spread all over the world speaks not just to the infectiousness of the disease, but also to the irrepressible force of human movement. That doesn’t stop some from trying to give the disease a nationality. US President Donald Trump insists on calling coronavirus the “Chinese virus” (as he and his supporters in the media have done repeatedly in the last week), as if tagging it as an adversary could make the disease more knowable — or insulate the president from criticism of his management of the crisis.

Yes, the source of the outbreak of novel coronavirus was in Wuhan, China. But there’s nothing essentially Chinese about the disease. The virus makes no distinction of nationality and geography; as it spreads panic around the US, it has also reached countries in sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean. No continent in the world (except for Antarctica, so far) is untouched. Trump calls it Chinese because he wants to add the virus to the host of foreign enemies that he conjures up for his supporters: Swarthy migrants, nefarious Muslim terrorists, Chinese factories gobbling up American jobs, and now Chinese microbes. But what utility is there in calling it Chinese? Italians have brought coronavirus to India; North American cruise ship passengers brought it to the Caribbean. Trump knows, one assumes, that germs don’t carry passports, that they don’t need visas, and that they are perfectly able to make themselves at home in most bodies and in most places (after all, there’s a not insignificant chance that he has contracted the virus himself). To call coronavirus Chinese is not just to assign blame, but it is to insist that the disease is fundamentally alien to American bodies, that it is a trespasser, an intruder, an unnatural guest.

In doing so, the president is merely channelling age-old habits of associating universal maladies with other peoples. In 16th-century Europe, syphilis was known as “the French disease” in Italy, “the Italian disease” in France, “the Polish disease” in Russia, and “the Christian disease” in Ottoman Turkey. Beyond ribald humour, there was a wishful thinking in these descriptions; the disease is appropriate for you, but not for me.

Some of the earliest border controls — and, therefore, some of the earliest forms of national borders themselves — sprung up around containing the threat of foreign disease. The word “quarantine” comes from medieval Venice, when the city-state required sailors during the Black Death to wait out on islands for a period of 40 days before entering the city proper (the city of Dubrovnik across the Adriatic Sea had earlier imposed a waiting period of 30 days, but that duration — sadly for Dubrovnik — proved ill-advised because the incubation period of the plague was actually 37 days).

But those practical measures always lived alongside darker cultural attitudes. European and North American states developed tighter control over the movement of people by mandating passports, entry quotas, and physical examinations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The tough immigration laws that the US enacted in 1924 were often justified in terms of hygiene and disease; certain kinds of foreigners, the argument went, invariably brought sickness with them. For the national body politic to remain healthy and pure, they had to be kept out. In a depressing corollary of those times, East Asians in the US have faced a spate of verbal and physical assaults in recent months, as if by virtue of their appearance they could spread coronavirus.

But infectious diseases don’t belong to anyone. If anything, they are a reminder at the largest level of what unites people — our shared frailties, our perseverance. As I write this, the city of New York, where I live, has entered a kind of lockdown. Schools are closed. Most office workers are stuck at home, trying to be productive in the midst of piles of dishes and toddler toys (or maybe that’s just me). There are already hundreds of cases of coronavirus in New York City, and the chances are that by the time you read this piece that total will have mushroomed into the thousands. Who knows, it could very well include yours truly.

I woke up on Monday morning to an eerie quiet in a city of such constant motion: Little traffic, the pavements desolate, the normally teeming schoolyard across the street silent. Bars, restaurants and cafes are shut or only offering take-out service. Unable to meet for drinks, friends now video-chat each other from their sofas, beers and whiskeys in hand. All across the world, more and more people are in the same boat, atomised in our shelters, but bonded in our plight. When the disease has brought so many different societies to the same place, where it comes from is entirely irrelevant.


Kanishk Tharoor is the author of Swimmer Among Stars, a collection of short fiction

Twitter: @kanishktharoor

Published on March 20, 2020

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