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Racism, Imperialism and COVID-19

Sid Lacombe

May 8, 2020

US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo stated that there is, “enormous evidence” that the coronavirus that produces COVID-19 was produced in a lab in China. This is nonsense. Pompeo himself presented no evidence that this is the case and his statement comes soon after the official US intelligence report saying completely the opposite. Most scientists agree - there is no evidence that the virus was deliberately produced by China.

This should come as no surprise for those of us who have watched US politicians lie about everything from weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (there weren’t any) or that the war in Afghanistan was being won by the NATO (it wasn’t). Yet despite the lack of evidence, Trump, Pompeo and their right-wing followers are using this statement to further ramp up attacks on China which inevitably results in more racism against people of East Asian backgrounds.

Racism and Imperialism

Like Islamophobia, this racism is deeply rooted in the needs of western imperialism. Muslims are targeted because the states that many of them live in are sitting on top of enormous oil wealth and key strategic areas of the world that the US wants to control. In the case of China, successive US governments have been deeply worried about the possibility that China could become a serious rival for US dominance of the globe and some in the US see the COVID crisis as a chance to ramp up the pressure to reduce China’s standing.

There will be problems for the sections of the US ruling class - those businesses that rely on China as a manufacturer of cheap goods or as a place to dump western products, but so far during the Trump administration they have kept quiet just as along as the tax cuts and corporate bailouts continue.

Trump’s concerns over China are not unique to his administration. Under Barack Obama, the US focussed more attention on the region as well. Obama’s, “pivot to Asia” was designed to slow Chinese influence in the immediate area and as a show of military force to stop Beijing from expending. The “belt and road” initiative launched by China in 2013 to provide an alternative source of development money for poorer countries was seen as a direct challenge to the US dominated global order set up after WWII and was part of Obama’s justification for sabre rattling.

The economic crisis will make this confrontation hotter. Economic competition will be increasingly fierce between the rival blocs and the possibility of trade wars and or military actions is increased.

Canadian conservatives get their cue

It didn’t take long for Canadian racists to take their cue from Trump and start their own attacks. The specific target for many of them has been Dr Theresa Tam, the Chief Public Health Officer in Canada.

Derek Sloan, the Conservative MP for Hastings - Lennox and Addington made headlines when he tweeted that Dr Tam, “needs to work for Canada. Not for the WHO or any other foreign entity.” He wasn’t the first. Alberta premier, Jason Kenney had already launched his own attacks on Dr Tam a week prior.  Kenney said he disagreed with her assessment of the COVID-19 crisis saying, “this is the same Dr. Tam who was telling us that we shouldn’t close our borders to countries with high levels of infection and who in January was repeating talking points out of the PRC (People’s Republic of China) about no evidence of human-to-human transmission.”

Kenney managed to include the 3 racist talking points all in one sentence. In his mind, migrants, China and, by extension, the World Health Organization are all to blame for the crisis.

For Trump and Kenney the racism will help divert attention from the failings of their own governments. The litany of failures by Trump has been well documented from underfunding the Center for Disease Control to the elimination of the pandemic preparedness program. For Kenney, he is overseeing the collapse of the Alberta economy and needs a scapegoat. He is desperate to get people back to work in meat packing plants in Alberta, despite the lack of proper protections for the workers. Kenney is literally sending people to die at work and laying the groundwork to blame China for the fact that they will get sick.

Racist Attacks

This rhetoric has resulted in a dramatic increase in attacks against people of East Asian backgrounds. In Vancouver, the Chinese cultural association was vandalized. There are daily reports of racist attacks across the country. The Chinese Canadian National Council of Social Justice (CCNC-SJ) commissioned a poll that found a huge rise in racism with almost a quarter of people surveyed saying that they would not sit next to anyone who looked East Asian on a bus. The Korean consulate in Montreal has been forced to issue warnings after a Korean man was stabbed in a racist attack in Montreal. The Canadian Union of Public employees in Manitoba surveyed their members and found that more than 20 percent of those who identify as East Asian have faced a racist attack while working in health care since the virus began. The list goes on and on.

To be clear, the government in China, and the WHO do have things to answer for in relation to this crisis. But so do many other governments. Trump literally called out the failures of the Chinese government right before suggesting people inject bleach into their bodies. He is not a credible arbiter of what constitutes an appropriate response.

Either way, people are not responsible for the actions of governments and the attacks on China are motivated by much larger geo-political machinations.

As the economic crisis deepens, we will see ruling classes increasingly look to military adventurism and scapegoating to divide and rule workers. The right-wing is using this racist whip up to build their forces as can be seen at the anti-lockdown protests erupting throughout the world peddling their conspiracies.

But we have beaten them back before - by confronting the bigots in the streets and by building the alternative to a system that wants to keep workers divided and weak. Those efforts will need to be re-doubled in the coming months and years.



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