On May 1, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a report that outlined how coronavirus spread in the U.S. via European travel to the New York metropolitan area, despite a popular narrative that China was the main conduit for the disease. So why was the U.S. quick to halt flights from China, but slow when it came to Europe?
Experts say that ingrained racism informed policymakers’ and the media’s favorable views toward European countries, and that even when presented with direct evidence to the contrary, those biases impeded important public health measures that would have kept people safe.
“Race and racism disallowed the U.S. from recognizing Europe as a threat,” said Khiara Bridges, an anthropologist and professor of law at University of California, Berkeley.
From the time President Donald Trump’s travel ban on China went into effect on February 1 until the ban on travel from Europe in mid-March, more than 10,000 flights from coronavirus hot spots in Europe came into the U.S., carrying some 2 million passengers, many of whom came through New York. Genome sequence mapping shows that most of New York’s cases came from Europe, and that other areas of the country also got the virus from New York. The CDC report was published more than two weeks after an Intercept report that analyzed flight data, as well as states’ coronavirus index cases and drew the same conclusions.
If travel from Europe had been halted three weeks sooner, the CDC report implies, the virus would not have spread so thoroughly in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, and potentially tens of thousands of lives could have been saved. When asked for comment about the role race played in the timing of these travel bans, the National Institutes of Health said to contact the CDC, and the CDC said to contact the White House, which did not respond.
Early, frequent, and racist attempts by Trump and administration officials to blame China for the spread of Covid-19, like calling it the “Wuhan virus,” played an important role in establishing a narrative that excluded Europe. But the bias goes beyond him and is deeply ingrained in American society, explained Dr. Jennifer Tsai, an emergency medicine physician who has studied the impact of racial bias in American medical education.
“There’s a clear connection between xenophobia and ideas of the source and danger of threats, and how much more easily that maps onto negativity in China and foreignness, and how much less likely it is to map on to ideas of Europe and whiteness,” Tsai said. “It seems to me that it is certainly associated with the outcomes that we’re seeing in that regard.”
Chinatowns in the U.S. have been unfairly targeted as the source of the spread of disease in the past, especially during plague outbreaks at the turn of the 20th century in Hawaii and California. That racial bias has been on full display during this pandemic, to the point where UC Berkeley listed “Xenophobia: fears about interacting with those who might be from Asia” as a “normal reaction” to coronavirus. Articles that dissected how travel from China spread the virus were plentiful from the beginning of the outbreak, but the few stories that looked at European travel were mostly produced after scientific studies with ample proof of Europe’s role were published.
“Europe is equated with whiteness and civilization: a safe haven and therefore, not a part of a pandemic origin story.”
“It’s not uncommon that the places one finds empowering or affirming are also presumed safe, free from existential risk. Europe in the American imagination is a place upon which these presumptions are projected: a place to visit and explore as a heritage site, to be a part of and claim,” said Adia Benton, an anthropologist at Northwestern University. “A more insidious and implicit reading of that sense of belonging is that Europe is equated with whiteness and civilization: a safe haven and therefore, not a part of a pandemic origin story,” she added.
Some politicians have reacted with surprise to the CDC report. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in his May 6 press conference that “nobody said it was coming from Europe. People who visited from Europe walked right through the airport. Nobody said to New Yorkers, be careful if you were just with somebody who came from Italy, be careful, they may have the virus. Nobody said that. So it was totally new.” (Cuomo spokesperson Caitlin Girouard told The Intercept that the “nobody” in the governor’s May 6 statement referred to “the federal government.”)
In reality, news that coronavirus was spreading throughout Europe was a top media story worldwide in late February and early March. Italy had reported its first coronavirus death on February 22, and by March 1, it had 1,694 cases and quarantined 100,000 people. On March 3, the French government had closed more than 100 schools, as well as pillars of tourism like the Louvre and told its citizens not to kiss when greeting each other. On March 2, the European Union raised the level of risk of Covid-19 contraction from moderate to high.
Tsai said that the inability to recognize how European travelers could be potential vectors of disease is so deeply held, it cannot always be combatted effectively with facts. “People are so primed to go down certain mental pathways when they are exposed to things like race and identity, that are so ingrained and so embedded, even very frank data and evidence cannot pull them out of those modes of thinking or that kind of theorization,” she said.
Both the travel restrictions to China and to Europe were reactions to events that had already taken place and may have had limited effect overall, said Benton. China had already shut down flights from the Hubei region, where the outbreak began, on January 23, meaning that there was already a de facto travel ban in place by the time a formal one took effect on February 1. Travel from Europe had also already significantly dropped off by the time those bans went into place six weeks later.
Because of the disease’s incubation period, “much of these policy decisions are based upon old information. And that’s generally what happens with epidemics,” Benton explained. “The travel restrictions are to some extent part of the security theater,” she said.
“If people come to associate Covid-19 with nonwhite death, if it comes to be associated with black people’s deaths, any will that the U.S. had to competently and humanely manage the pandemic will just be lost.”
Racism has been evident in the domestic reaction to coronavirus, too, as seen in widely shared images juxtaposing police officers calmly handing out masks to white people sitting in a public park, while violently arresting black and Latinx people in other parts of the city. “What types of populations, identities, and phenotypes are deemed safe enough to be entitled to their liberation or not, for the purpose, ostensibly of social safety?” asked Tsai.
Racial bias also played a negative role in how basic health measures like wearing a mask were perceived early on. Americans “have always viewed the face masks as something that others do, that nonwhite people do and nonwhite countries do,” said Bridges.
The spread of coronavirus in the U.S. has deeply hurt black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities, highlighting endemic racism in health care, the labor market, income, housing, and more. The danger that the virus itself will be racialized poses a direct threat to those communities and everyone else in the country, Bridges said. “My fear is that if people come to associate Covid-19 with nonwhite death, if it comes to be associated with black people’s deaths, any will that the U.S. had to competently and humanely manage the pandemic will just be lost.”