One thing about the coronavirus pandemic that is predictable: We will be led to think of the world, and each other, differently.
As mitigation measures become more aggressive, additional travel restrictions fall into place, businesses limit their hours. The economic window through which we live narrows. We hope the curve flattens.
But, a consequence of social distancing is, well, social distancing. 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. The political and social divide that defines our times grows wider.
Into the vacuum created by these necessary measures will step powerful forces. Their goal will be to breed mistrust, fan the flames of xenophobia and turn Americans against “the other.”
The influenza pandemic of 1918–1920 offers important lessons.
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.”
In 1882, at the outset of this period of increased immigration, is when Congress first passed the public charge rule, that, according to historian Kunal Parker in an interview with NPR, excluded from entry into the United States, “’any convict, lunatic, idiot or any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge.’”
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. According to the Office of the House Historian, “The House passed the 1924 Immigration Act — a measure which was a legislative expression of the xenophobia, particularly towards eastern and southern European immigrants, that swept America in the decade of the 1920s.”
All of this was long before our globalized, integrated, economy; before the information bubbles that sharply define public opinion; and, most importantly, before the rise of today’s powers that look to demagogue immigrants and immigration.
Already, one side of the 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.
What is stopping the rhetoric getting even worse?
Across the board, a new NBC/WSJ poll found deep partisan differences when came to how voters were perceiving and responding to coronavirus. “81 percent of Republican voters approve of Trump’s handling of the issue, while 84 percent of Democrats disapprove.”
If Republican voter approval numbers begin to dip, the White House is likely to turn to their favorite scapegoat: immigrants.
Particularly if numbers begin to increase in Latin America or Africa, where, so far, reported cases have stayed low.
Or, if there is an outbreak among the tens of thousands of migrants detained in ICE facilities?
In Foreign Policy, British economist Philippe Legrain calls the coronavirus crisis, “a political gift for nativist nationalists and protectionists.”
More than ever, our domestic debate on immigration is influenced by the global debate on migration. As advocates for immigrants and immigration, we have been late to realize this.
Legrain presents the challenge as, “Once the pandemic and panic abate, those who believe that openness to people and products from around the world is generally a good thing will need to make the case for it in fresh and persuasive ways.”
We can do this differently.