rudd11_Samuel CorumGetty Images_cdcsecretarycoronavirus Samuel Corum/Getty Images

COVID-19 Trumps Nationalism

Like climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic is a perfect example of why we need multilateralism in a globalized world. Rather than resorting to thinly veiled racism and isolationist policies, global leaders – particularly the United States – should have started organizing a collective response weeks ago.

NEW YORK – I was recently walking along East 29th Street in Manhattan, after visiting a friend at Bellevue Hospital, when I was roused from my thoughts by a middle-aged white male screaming at an old Chinese man, “Get the fuck out of my country, you piece of Chinese shit!” The old man was stunned. So was I, before I bellowed back (deploying the full range of my native Australian vocabulary), “Fuck off and leave him alone, you white racist piece of shit!”

The pedestrian traffic stopped. A young white guy with dark hair came storming toward me. As a non-pugilist by instinct and training, I braced for what was coming. He stopped just short of me and said, “Thank you for standing up for him. That’s why I fought in Iraq; so that people like him could be free.”

Leaving aside the troubled history of the Iraq War, COVID-19 is a stark reminder that global pandemics, like climate change, do not respect political borders. China’s experience with the virus in January and February is likely to be repeated in much of the rest of the world in March and April. There will be variations on the numbers of infections, depending on imponderable factors such as the temperature, the relative robustness of public-health testing and treatment systems, and differing levels of financial and economic resilience. We should be preparing intelligently for these contingencies, not succumbing to irrational panic – let alone pandering to racist stereotypes.

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