Early Tuesday, President Trump shared with his 73.5 million followers on Twitter a message from Charlie Kirk, the head of a pro-Trump organization for college students. Kirk’s central point was that “[n]ow, more than ever, we need the wall” on the border with Mexico, given the spread of the novel coronavirus across the world and within the United States.
“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 U.S. 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, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield indicated that he hadn’t seen much use in such efforts.
He was also asked about the use of terms like Kirk’s “China Virus” formulation. He rejected the idea that it was appropriate to use that descriptor to refer to the virus. A month ago, the World Health Organization announced that it would refer to the disease caused by the virus as “covid-19.”
“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, we’ve seen a number of administration officials and allies of the president’s use descriptors like “Chinese coronavirus” or “Wuhan virus,” referring to the metropolitan area in China were the outbreak first emerged.
While media outlets such as CNN used terms like “Wuhan coronavirus” before the WHO 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 that allies of the president and members of his administration seem to be increasingly linking the virus itself to China. One is geopolitical; the other simply political.
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 U.S. 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 “[a]nyone who refuses to call this the Wuhan Virus or Chinese Coronavirus is helping the Communists’ attempts to rewrite history.” (Gosar also noted that the media had used the same term previously — though 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.
The Wuhan coronavirus has exposed America’s over-reliance on Chinese manufacturing, from vital medical supplies to electronics. Thanks @HudsonInstitute for giving me a chance to discuss this threat to our economy: pic.twitter.com/ZWYHixZ5Al
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.
“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 lengthy 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 tie it to China have become more common, however quietly. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy shared information Monday about dealing with the coronavirus — which he casually identified as the “Chinese coronavirus.”
Everything you need to know about the Chinese coronavirus can be found on one, regularly-updated website: https://t.co/nGCCDVqcqe
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 individuals 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 U.S. 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.
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