Some public health experts have been quick to call out the new policy as useless in addressing the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus. Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni of Italy, whose country has in place a similar testing requirement, called for the European Union to follow Italy’s lead in adopting the same policy but was denied by most member states on grounds of inefficacy. Indeed, without universal testing, contact tracing and masking mandates, selective reinforcement by geographic origin succeeds only in singling out the predominantly Chinese travelers and reviving rampant anti-Asian hate. In the place of coherent policy, similar requirements — in America, but also in a handful of other nations, such as Italy, India, Japan and Britain — are nothing more than the violent, involuntary jerk of a giant racist muscle.
For the better part of this year, the mainstream narrative in America has been that the pandemic is over and Covid is no longer a true danger. President Biden said so himself, and just 12 percent of all adults in the United States still view Covid-19 as a severe health risk. Even amid the winter “tripledemic,” no nationwide viral mitigating action has been taken, and pundits gleefully ridicule masking as fringe activism. Troubling reports of debilitating long-Covid symptoms and multiple reinfections have done little to influence policy, but as soon as China reopened to the world, the administration mobilized. The official narrative cites concern that a surge of infections in China could spawn a more dangerous variant, even though the newest Omicron subvariant, XBB.1.5, with documented immune-evasive properties, is spreading rapidly in the United States without triggering nationwide mask mandates or alarm.
Why does the administration drag its feet on XBB.1.5 but treat the “China variant” as a dangerous, volatile plague that must be kept from invading America? This echoes the early-2020 travel ban on passengers from China, a racist policy decision that focused on the spread of the coronavirus from China while ignoring European travelers who brought it to New York.
By treating only Covid from China as a real danger and domestic cases as presumably milder, the U.S. government effectively endorses the centuries-old trope of Asians as the “diseased other” and the notion that the coronavirus is, in fact, the “China virus.” This places Asians in America once more in the cross hairs of racist scapegoating. The days of heightened anti-Asian violence are barely behind us, and I fear a return of vulnerable elders being harmed in public, of shouted slurs. Just last year, the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act addressing anti-Asian violence passed with rare bipartisan support from both chambers of Congress. Even this legislation could prove to be an empty gesture now that the Biden administration is creating policies that actively promote the xenophobia it claims to stand behind eradicating.
We know a lot more about Covid than we did three years ago, and there is so much that can be done to actually protect Americans from new strains. Dr. Lucky Tran of Columbia University’s Irving Medical Center told me, “If the U.S. is really worried about variants and the spread of Covid through travel, it should require negative tests for all travelers, no matter where they come from, and reinstate the mask mandate for public transportation.”