Trump Can’t Deport the Coronavirus
COVID-19 is as American as apple pie now—and people are more likely to catch the virus from their neighbors than from foreigners.
In a speech that terrified markets and got basic facts wrong, U.S. President Donald Trump announced a ban on travel from much of Europe to the United States on Wednesday night. In it, he described COVID-19 as a “foreign virus” and attempted to put the blame on European countries for not responding as quickly as he claimed the United States had.
But the new coronavirus is not a foreign problem now. It never was, nor could be, in an age as globalized as this one. Once it had escaped containment within its original small patch in Wuhan, China, making its way to the United States was as inevitable as the arrival of McDonalds in downtown Beijing more than two decades ago.
Right now, COVID-19 is burrowed into bodies and smeared on door handles nationwide in the United States, regardless of where its hosts came from or what passport they hold. It leaps from American host to American host, just as it does between others. When the chains of contact are reconstructed, they will show patterns of infection inside U.S. communities—quite possibly from well before the virus was first detected. This is the same the world over, even in China. The virus is not a Chinese problem or a foreign one. It is universal.
We’ve seen this horror movie. You can bar the doors and the windows, but the serial killer is already inside the house—and has been for some time.
To be sure, the number of coronavirus cases in the United States is smaller than in Italy, France, or Germany, despite its larger population. But the U.S. cases are growing exponentially—both as the virus spreads and as more existing cases are discovered through testing that has been critically short on the ground, as a study in Seattle has revealed.
Italy has tested 40 times as many people per capita as the United States; France has tested seven times as many. Far from the vision of the United States being the “best in the world” painted in Trump’s speech, the U.S. response has been widely lambasted. Trump has often seemed less afraid of the number of cases on U.S. soil than of their discovery or inclusion in the statistics.
Two things make this ban especially absurd, even on its own terms.
The first is the exclusion of U.S. citizens, permanent residents, and their immediate families. From a humanitarian point of view, of course, this is a good thing. Avoiding stranding people far from their loved ones is desirable—and quite possibly a legal necessity, too. But viruses don’t respect passports. If the measure is medically motivated, U.S. citizens returning from Europe need to be kept out, too—or at the very least subject to the same two-week quarantine other countries, such as Israel, are imposing on returnees.
The second is its restriction to the countries of the Schengen Area, but the exclusion of the United Kingdom and Ireland. The U.K. has far more confirmed coronavirus cases than the majority of European nations, and there is constant and frequent travel between the U.K. and those nations. The only way to make sense of the exclusion is to see it as a political measure—an attempt to reach out to a British prime minister who Trump believes is an ideological ally against a European Union he openly despises. From a public health point of view, it’s nonsense.
To top all this off, even though Western Europe is showing the worst numbers outside of China, there is every chance that this is simply because of the continent’s advanced health care and detection facilities. It beggars belief that Russia—not included in the ban—has just 28 cases, or that Turkey has just one.
The virus is very likely running rampant throughout the developing world, just as it is in the United States. It may be, of course, that Trump hopes to extend such measures and went for Europe first as a shield from accusations of racism. But to ban Europe alone makes zero sense.
The public health consensus is virtually unanimous. Americans don’t need to be protected from foreigners at this point. They need to be protected from each other—in order to care for each other. Social distancing, self-quarantine, and the closure of mass events are vital.
Your neighbor is just as likely to give you the coronavirus as a foreigner. A mass program to encourage Americans to come together as a community by standing some distance from each other—a policy that has, for now, contained South Korea’s outbreak to some extent and kept Hong Kong virtually virus-free for weeks—matters more than any travel ban.
Trump, of course, loved travel bans long before the coronavirus arrived. Throughout his campaign he boasted he would install a “Muslim ban.” In office, he targeted nations rather than faiths in order to give the Supreme Court enough cover to pretend his ban was something other than what he promised.
He has used the language of disease to describe Islam, and immigrants. “There’s a sickness. They’re sick people. There’s a sickness going on. There’s a group of people that is very sick,” as he remarked when asked in 2015 whether his proposed travel ban would apply to a Canadian Muslim. When challenged on his failure to take basic preparation measures despite the weeks of warning since the Wuhan outbreak, he has pointed over and over to his decision to ban travel from China, falsely claiming that the United States was the first country to do so.
Trump’s vision has always been of a Fortress America, sitting safely away from the dangers of the world while still commanding it. The president—not known to be a student of the past—may not realize that one of the perils of fortresses, historically, was the plague, which ran rampant through populations besieged inside them.
Trump can’t keep out an invisible foe or pretend that the problem is the fault of the rest of the world. We have met the enemy, and it is us.
Correction, March 12, 2020: Italy has tested 40 times as many people per capita as the United States; France has tested seven times as many. A previous version of this story misstated these per capita numbers.
James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer