Leonard Pitts: Viruses don’t carry passports

Published 9:37 pm Saturday, March 21, 2020

By Leonard Pitts

Viruses do not carry passports. Nor do they have birth certificates or other markers of citizenship.

So the insistence of Donald Trump and other Republicans upon identifying the coronavirus that has sickened and killed people all over the world as a “Chinese virus” (as Trump has done on multiple occasions) or a “foreign virus,” (as he did in his widely panned Oval Office speech) is nonsensical on its face.

Or at least it is until you remember that the GOP is a hate group — and Trump its grand wizard.

The intentionally ignorant will dispute that racism underlies Trump’s words. They will note that the pandemic did, indeed, originate in Wuhan, China (which initially tried to cover up the outbreak) and that it is not unprecedented to name a disease for its birthplace. For example, the Ebola virus takes its name from a river near the village in Congo where the disease was first identified.

That explanation will satisfy some. The rest of us will remember that Trump leads the party of “send her back” and “very fine people on both sides,” of “disgusting” American cities and “shithole countries.” The rest of us will note that the medical establishment has designated the illness COVID-19, an acronym for coronavirus disease, 2019, and that Trump and his enablers are virtually the only ones who’ve made a point of calling it something else.

And we will conclude that this is, indeed, an appeal to the worst in human nature. If you still doubt it, consider Tuesday’s tweet from CBS reporter Weijia Jiang: “This morning a White House official referred to #coronavirus as the ‘Kung-Flu’ to my face. Makes me wonder what they’re calling it behind my back.”

Or consider Wednesday’s statement from Sen. John Cornyn: “China is to blame because the culture where people eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that.” For the record, Cornyn is from Texas, where they are known to consider rattlesnake nuggets and bull testicles quite the delicacy.

So there’s nothing here to doubt. We’re dealing with Republican bigotry. Again. It is no coincidence that hate crimes rose sharply after Trump came to office on an implicit promise to Make Hatred Great Again. Now we’re seeing reports of Asian people verbally and physically assaulted around the country.

The GOP has been the party of white grievance for more than 50 years, and appeals to bigotry have been its go-to move. Why would they abandon that playbook now? After all, every moment spent debating “Chinese virus” is time not spent talking about Trump’s laggard response to a global crisis, his multitude of lies, the lack of testing supplies and numbers that keep going up.

Will the diversion work? Or, will so obvious and monumental a failure finally prove to be a bridge too far? Well, for years, we’ve seen Republicans prioritize their bigotry above logic, faith, decency, the Constitution and their own financial well-being. It would be disappointing, but hardly a shock, to see them prioritize it above their health and lives.

Crises reveal character. What is revealed here is base and shameful.

Once again, the GOP draws lines of difference and discrimination in accordance with the fears of its core constituency: those who are older, angry and white. The great irony is that while we may argue about and across those lines, their ultimate meaninglessness has seldom been more obvious. Fever doesn’t ask for a birth certificate. Shortness of breath doesn’t care what your passport says. For a virus, there are no lines.

Email Pitts at lpitts@miamiherald.com