When the Chinese government abruptly eased its draconian Covid-19 policies in December, I felt an uncanny combination of abject horror and relief. After three years of endless PCR tests and lockdowns — “zero Covid,” which has gripped China like a vise, was finally brought to a close. Overseas Chinese people like me will finally be able to more easily reunite with family and try to make up for lost time.
But China’s recklessly executed reopening has become a farcical nightmare resulting in millions infected, hospitals and crematories overflowing; seemingly overnight, it seemed as if everyone I know in China has tested positive for the coronavirus. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s testing requirement for passengers “on flights originating from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), including the Special Administrative Regions (SAR) of Hong Kong and Macau,” will once again invite a racial backlash against Asian people in America.
Even though the C.D.C. requirements are not a nationality-based travel ban, history told me to brace for xenophobic panic. I didn’t need to wait long before the Biden administration swiftly rolled out a new policy requiring travelers from China to present negative Covid-19 tests before entering the United States.
For three years, Western media coverage has treated the Covid situation in China like a spectacle, an opportunity to gawk at the toxic cesspool contained in self-imposed isolation across the ocean. But now that flights between the United States and China are poised to return to prepandemic frequency, Chinese people will no longer be “over there,” but will once again be able to regularly travel. We already live with Covid; infection rates — measured by hospitalizations — are on the rise in many countries around the world. Covid is not a new enemy, for it has already breached the walls of the United States.
Some public health experts have been quick to call out the new policy as useless in addressing the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus. Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni of Italy, whose country has in place a similar testing requirement, called for the European Union to follow Italy’s lead in adopting the same policy but was denied by most member states on grounds of inefficacy. Indeed, without universal testing, contact tracing and masking mandates, selective reinforcement by geographic origin succeeds only in singling out the predominantly Chinese travelers and reviving rampant anti-Asian hate. In the place of coherent policy, similar requirements — in America, but also in a handful of other nations, such as Italy, India, Japan and Britain — are nothing more than the violent, involuntary jerk of a giant racist muscle.
For the better part of this year, the mainstream narrative in America has been that the pandemic is over and Covid is no longer a true danger. President Biden said so himself, and just 12 percent of all adults in the United States still view Covid-19 as a severe health risk. Even amid the winter “tripledemic,” no nationwide viral mitigating action has been taken, and pundits gleefully ridicule masking as fringe activism. Troubling reports of debilitating long-Covid symptoms and multiple reinfections have done little to influence policy, but as soon as China reopened to the world, the administration mobilized. The official narrative cites concern that a surge of infections in China could spawn a more dangerous variant, even though the newest omicron subvariant, XBB.1.5, with documented immune-evasive properties, is spreading rapidly in the United States without triggering nationwide mask mandates or alarm.
Why does the administration drag its feet on XBB.1.5 but treat the “China variant” as a dangerous, volatile plague that must be kept from invading America? This echoes the early-2020 travel ban on passengers from China, a racist policy decision that focused on the spread of the coronavirus from China while ignoring European travelers who brought it to New York.
By treating only Covid from China as a real danger and domestic cases as presumably milder, the U.S. government effectively endorses the centuries-old trope of Asians as the “diseased other” and the notion that the coronavirus is, in fact, the “China virus.” This places Asians in America once more in the cross hairs of racist scapegoating. The days of heightened anti-Asian violence are barely behind us, and I fear a return of vulnerable elders being harmed in public, of shouted slurs. Just last year, the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act addressing anti-Asian violence passed with rare bipartisan support from both chambers of Congress. Even this legislation could prove to be an empty gesture now that the Biden administration is creating policies that actively promote the xenophobia it claims to stand behind eradicating.
We know a lot more about Covid than we did three years ago, and there is so much that can be done to actually protect Americans from new strains. Dr. Lucky Tran of Columbia University’s Irving Medical Center told me, “If the U.S. is really worried about variants and the spread of Covid through travel, it should require negative tests for all travelers, no matter where they come from, and reinstate the mask mandate for public transportation.”
The coronavirus knows no nationalities or borders, and treating it as a uniquely Chinese problem not only serves to pathologize Asian people but also fails to protect the American public, whose understanding of how the virus spreads and harms depends on consistent and scientifically rigorous messaging from the government. The racialization of a pandemic is a result of a diseased mind-set, which almost three years into the pandemic is no longer acceptable. The good news is we already have the cure for that.
Frankie Huang (@ourobororoboruo) is a writer and illustrator. She is a co-editor of Reappropriate, an Asian American feminist outlet.
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