On January 31, Health and Human Services secretary Alex Azar announced new restrictions on those entering the United States from China:
Any U.S. citizen returning to the United States who has been in Hubei Province in the previous 14 days will be subject to up to 14 days of mandatory quarantine to ensure they are they are provided proper medical care and health screening.
Any U.S. citizen returning to the United States who has been in the rest of Mainland China within the previous 14 days will undergo proactive entry health screening at a select number of ports of entry and up to 14 days of monitored self-quarantine to ensure they’ve not contracted the virus and do not pose a public health risk.
Additionally, the President has signed a presidential proclamation, using his authority pursuant to Section 212(f) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, temporarily suspending the entry into the United States of foreign nationals who pose a risk of transmitting the 2019 novel coronavirus.
As a result, foreign nationals, other than immediate family of U.S. citizens and permanent residents, who have traveled in China within the last 14 days will be denied entry into the United States for this time.
Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, were right next to Azar as he made the announcement. There is no indication that any significant figure in the U.S. government thought that was an overreaction or an expression of some kind of xenophobia.
Here is how Joe Biden responded that day:
We have right now a crisis with the coronavirus emanating from China a national emergency, and, you know, worldwide alerts. The American people need to have a president who they can trust what he says about it; that he is going to act rationally about it. And moments like this, this is where credibility of a president is most needed as he explains what we should and should not do. This is no time for Donald Trump’s record of hysteria, xenophobia — hysterical xenophobia — and fear-mongering to lead the way instead of science.
While Biden never explicitly said, “We should not have this travel restriction in place,” he certainly didn’t offer any comment that suggested this was the correct move, and the rote denunciation of Trump’s “hysterical xenophobia” would easily leave audiences thinking that the travel restrictions from China were an irrational overreaction, driven by anti-Chinese animus.
Obviously, that move was not an overreaction. If we could go back in time to January 31, we might have wanted to shut down all travel from overseas and institute health screening for all returning visitors — particularly countries that we now know were full of asymptomatic carriers, such as Italy and Spain.
Some foes and critics of the president could, at least in the early stages of this crisis, only perceive what was happening as another example of a president they disdain engaging in paranoia and xenophobia. They could not get their heads around the idea that maybe, in this particular situation, he was making the right call.
Similarly, at least in the early stages of this crisis, some fans and defenders of the president could only perceive the story as “the media is out to get the president again.” Trish Regan of Fox Business News offered a now-infamous “Coronavirus impeachment scam” graphic. We’ve seen other conservative commentators insist that the media must be over-hyping the threat, because the death rate could be no worse than one percent. (While the theorized one percent death rate of coronavirus and the one-tenth of one percent death rate of the seasonal flu are both small percentages, the one-percent death rate means . . . ten times as many deaths as a flu season.)
The president and the U.S. government’s response to the coronavirus is indeed a key component of this story. But it is not the only component of this story or even the most important part of this story. The overall effort to contain and treat the disease is.
There are reporters who are covering the coronavirus as if it’s a story about Trump, and blue checkmark Twitter users and celebrities who continue to discuss it as if it’s a story about Trump. Bette Midler insists, “None of this would be happening if he were not president.”
Perhaps all of this is less willful blindness than a coping mechanism, to believe that the main danger is the president or a biased media, and not a virus that we cannot see, that is lying on surfaces and perhaps floating around in our communities, waiting to strike the vulnerable. The coronavirus is a frightening enemy that we’re not used to fighting. No wonder some people are sticking to fighting the foes they’re used to demonizing.