When Conservative leadership hopeful Derek Sloan released a video on social media claiming that Canada’s chief medical officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, was actually a foreign agent working for China, what evidence did he have?
None at all.
When we find ourselves in a political time when even someone as respected as Dr. Tam can be seen as a foreign agent solely because of their race, we know it’s a scary time for all Canadians of Chinese and Asian descent.
There is little denying that comments such as Sloan’s contribute to a climate of danger. Chinese and Asian Canadians are facing increasing hate crimes, from the assault of seniors to the abuse of frontline health care workers.
Equally serious, the unsubstantiated notion that the leading health official in Canada is a foreign agent risks undermining the credibility of nationwide efforts to confront and combat COVID-19.
The Conservatives need to denounce Sloan’s comments immediately, and Sloan should most certainly apologize to Canadians for his outrageous, racist, and frankly seditious remarks. And we must certainly do all that we can to force them to do so.
But of course, Sloan’s comments don’t exist in a vacuum. They are part of a larger current of thought that seeks to reshape and reduce the COVID-19 narrative to the culpability of China, Chinese people and those who look Asian.
In this vision, the World Health Organization is controlled by China, and even Canada’s Dr. Bruce Aylward, a senior adviser to the organization, becomes suspected of being a foreign agent. The evidence? They were overly celebratory of China’s COVID-19 response and would not officially recognize Taiwan. It matters little in this narrative that the former is in line with studies by Western epidemiologists and that the latter stems from the complicated political reality that Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations and thus is not guaranteed membership in the WHO.
Membership in global political bodies is a complex issue. It would be disingenuous to say that complying with United Nations protocol makes Dr. Aylward or WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus agents of the Chinese government.
Yet the narrative of Chinese culpability is growing in prominence, in part because of growing bi-partisan approval in the United States. Trump’s persistent racialization of the coronavirus — he has repeatedly referred to it as the “Chinese virus” — has played a part. His latest campaign video seeks to shape the upcoming U.S. election around China, claiming that as “China cripples America,” Biden has gone soft on it.
Biden has doubled down on rhetoric about China in his own campaign video, even suggesting the tremendous damage from COVID-19 stems from Trump letting in too many Chinese travellers.
Facts don’t seem to matter much in American politics anymore. So the fact that the majority of cases in the U.S. can actually be traced back to Europe and that more cases in the U.S. come from cruise ships than they did from China is, of course, irrelevant. Nor does it matter that Chinese diasporic communities actually practised extensive mechanisms to self-quarantine and prevent the spread of the disease before public health officials in the West responded.
That both Trump and the Democratic establishment would want to make COVID-19 all about China is understandable: it is a quick and easy way to exonerate the complete failure that has been the U.S. domestic response.
While death and unemployment sweep working-class communities in the U.S., the American billionaire class has profited to the tune of almost $280 billion, or 10 per cent of their total wealth. Meanwhile, corporate-backed protestors insist on reopening the economy even though the virus is not yet under control.
Both Republican and establishment Democrats have for decades overseen the erosion of social safety nets, tremendous resistance to even very bare basic healthcare coverage, and continual crackdowns on labour. The failure of public health amid the COVID-19 crisis is but the last straw.
In this landscape, Washington figures it is much easier to blame the situation on China.
Let’s be clear. There are many matters for which China, like other states, should be criticized. But it would be a mistake to blame China for the damage that COVID-19 has caused across the world.
According to both the WHO and independent researchers, the Chinese government took decisive action in the face of a completely novel disease, shutting down their economy and society for months, with great sacrifice on the part of the country’s populace, to slow the global spread of this disease.
Now and in the future, we should work towards a full accounting of how events transpired. Serious, rigorous, and evidence-based inquiries need to be made into whether the WHO and governments have mounted effective responses to COVID-19, and all parties and all states should be held accountable.
This work must not be undermined by insinuations that China “allowed” this to happen or that COVID-19 is mainly China’s fault — narratives that form the strategic thrust of the Republican Party, and of which Sloan’s remarks are but a test balloon for the Conservative Party. Not only are these unfactual, but they must be recognized for what they are: dangerous narratives that tap into deep anti-Chinese prejudices and allow the ruling classes to easily shift the blame and the crises onto a “foreign enemy” while continuing to absolve neoliberalism, corruption and state failure for the extreme devastation they have unleashed.
At the beginning of the 21st century, we in the West found ourselves in a similar situation in the aftermath of 9/11. Today, the targets may have switched, but the strategy pursued by the ruling elites in the U.S. remains the same.
Sloan’s comments are but an early symptom of what will likely be an increasing wave of Sinophobia and anti-Asian racism in the West. We must challenge it and all other forms of discrimination and racism that arise as a result of this terrible disease.
The earlier we can see how public opinion is being manufactured to suit the interests of the ruling elites at the cost of the majority of people, the better off we will all be. Had we done so after 9/11, we might not have found ourselves embroiled in decades of war in Iraq. We must remember those painful lessons and say, “Never again.”
Justin Kong is a community and labour organizer working in Toronto, Canada. He is the executive director of the Chinese Canadian National Council Toronto Chapter. He has written extensively on labour, progressive politics and immigration, and his writings can be found in Briarpatch Magazine, Huffington Post, rabble.ca and New Canadian Media.