We don’t know what the country is going to look like in three months. But one outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic that is entirely predictable: We will be led to think of the world, and one other, differently.
History shows us that opportunistic politicians will weaponize coronavirus to scapegoat immigrants and further curtail immigration. As mitigation measures become more aggressive, additional travel restrictions fall into place, social distancing becomes the norm, and businesses shutter, the economic window through which we live narrows.
As Lyman Stone wrote in Foreign Policy, “Bereft of work, school, public gatherings, sports and hobbies, or even the outside world at all, humans do poorly. We need the moral and mental support of communities to be the decent people we all aspire to be.” Churches take their services online, schools close, sporting events are shuttered.
Out of necessity, our lives become more homogeneous. We lose contact with the Jose or the Maria we came to know, respect and love as a neighbor, churchgoer or coworker. The political and social schisms that defines our times grow wider.
Into the vacuum created by these necessary measures will step powerful forces breeding mistrust, fanning the flames of xenophobia and turning Americans against “the other.”
A look back to the influenza pandemic of 1918-1920 offers a glimpse of the future.
Although numbers had decreased due to World War I, “In 1918, the United States was in the midst of the largest wave of immigration in its history,” writes Alan Kraut for Public Health Reports. In the preceding decades, immigrants from Ireland, Italy and China, along with Jewish migrants, were often scapegoated. “Nativists stigmatized particular immigrant groups as the carriers of specific diseases, rationalizing their prejudice with medical and public health arguments,” Kraut writes.
Kraut argues that a combination of leadership from the immigrant community, the service of nearly 500,000 foreign-born soldiers of 46 different nationalities serving in the wartime army, and religious organizations combined to “untangle the double helix of health and fear created by … the intersection of the Spanish influenza pandemic that would last for months and the wave of immigration.”
But, author Kenneth C. Davis points out that, “The Spanish flu left a lasting imprint in the decades to come. ‘The combination of the flu and the war made Americans afraid of what was out there in the wider world, so there was a growing notion of becoming an isolationist country and keeping out foreign elements.’”
Less than five years later, nativism found a home in Congress. The House of Representatives passed the 1924 Immigration Act which legislated xenophobia towards eastern and southern European immigrants, among others – a trend that became widespread during the roaring 1920s.
All of this was long before our hyper-globalized, interdependent, economic system; before the information bubbles that sharply define public opinion; and, most importantly, before the rise of populists in the 2010s who look to demagogue immigrants and immigration.
This is the backdrop against which a multibillion-dollar presidential campaign, pitting two deeply opposing views of America against each other, will be waged. Already, one side of the COVID-19 narrative is shaped by claims the virus came from a backward, corrupt, unclean China, facilitated by Democrats’ open-borders ideology, only to be stopped by travel bans. The other side — led by Vice President Biden’s call for a 100-day moratorium on deportations — adds fuel to a raging fire.
What is stopping the rhetoric from worsening in a highly polarized country, that perceiving coronavirus through a partisan lens? How do we tell one story when, as a new NBC/WSJ poll found, 81 percent of Republican voters approve of Trump’s handling of COVID-19, while 84 percent of Democrats disapprove?
To be fair, now that the White House is acknowledging the severity of the crisis, these numbers are likely to change. More Republicans will take the mitigation measures seriously. That’s a positive step forward.
But, if the president fails to stem the pandemic, Republican approval numbers of his leadership will begin to dip.
At which point President Donald Trump will turn to a favorite scapegoat: immigrants.
Particularly if there is an uptick in cases from Latin America or Africa. Or, an outbreak among the tens of thousands of migrants detained in Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities.
British economist Philippe Legrain was correct when he wrote in Foreign Policy that the coronavirus crisis is “a political gift for nativist nationalists and protectionists.”
A lot of things are about to get worse.
Ali Noorani is the executive director of the National Immigration Forum, author of “There Goes the Neighborhood, and host of the podcast “Only in America.”
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