Opinion: Coronavirus outbreak exposes fear, xenophobia

Tom Watkins
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Humans fear the unknown. 

There is an underlying xenophobia in America and it does not take much to expose it. The coronavirus has become the latest issue that has scraped the thin veneer of paranoia away.

The New York Times reports that for people in the United States with close ties to China, the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak has brought unexpected worry, disappointment and scrutiny.

The United States State Department has warned Americans to avoid all travel to China due to the “rapidly spreading” coronavirus outbreak. The decision by America and other nations came after the World Health Organization called the outbreak “a global public health emergency” in an attempt to get more resources and increase international coordination to fight it. Fear is now spreading as fast as the virus.

More:Detroit Metro picked to receive flights from China amid virus outbreak

Federal officials announced that Americans who were evacuated from Wuhan, the epicenter of the China coronavirus outbreak, will be quarantined for 14 days at a U.S. military base to prevent any spread of the infectious disease. The quarantine is the first in the U.S. in 50 years.

A girl wearing a face mask stands in the entrance to a shop in Wuhan in central China's Hubei Province, Friday.

Delta Air Lines, a major U.S. airline with many nonstop flights to Shanghai and Beijing, has decided to temporarily suspend all U.S. to China flights beginning Feb. 6 through April 30 due to ongoing concerns related to the coronavirus. American Airlines and United Airlines are doing so as well. While this is a prudent and economically sound decision, it stokes even greater concern that the coronavirus and hence the Chinese/Asian people are to be feared. 

At a time when China’s rise as a global economic and military power has unsettled its neighbors in Asia as well as its rivals in the West, the coronavirus may be feeding latent bigotry against the people of mainland China.

The Trump administration has ushered in a steady drumbeat of anti-China rhetoric that has heated up the anti-China perceptions across America and the world. 

Rhetorical poison, as lethal as carbon dioxide gas, is seeping into the public consciousness. We have seen this before.

In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act that codified exactly how much the Chinese were not welcome. People whose labor was used to literally build and connect this country were not wanted. 

More recently, in the early 1980s, the Big Three domestic auto industry, feeling the pinch of foreign competition, experienced a stagnant economy, plant closings and U.S. layoffs of blue-collar worker. 

At union halls and around U.S. factory towns, signs reading “No Foreign Cars Allowed” and “Don't Even Think About Parking a Foreign Car Here” were incendiary messages that sprouted like weeds on empty factory lots.

Anti-foreign sentiment was at a fever pitch then. I recall a local church carnival where, for one U.S. dollar, you got three hits with a sledge hammer on a foreign (Japanese) car. A blame game mentality was setting in, particularly against “Asians” for the economic woes that had beset many in U.S. manufacturing land.

Metro Detroit became ground zero for this anger and frustration where many displaced autoworkers felt that global change was yanking the economic rug out from under them. Far too many heard and saw the hate. But they chose to remain silent.

We have to be aware of the prejudices and underlying fear of China and how these latent historical concerns can and do boil over with the slightest provocation and can impact U.S.-China relations for decades to come. 

The China-U.S. relationship is the most important bilateral relationship in the world today. We cannot allow a virus of fear and xenophobia to destroy our global relationships at any level.

Let’s work together to fight this dreadful coronavirus and not allow it to create anti-Chinese sentiment that poisons the soul.  

Tom Watkins is a former Michigan state superintendent of schools  and has been working to build cultural, economic and educational ties with China for more than three decades.

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