Seemingly an eon ago, on February 28, I sent the email below to the Brookings family as president of the Institution. While I knew Brookings colleagues would treat each other with civility and respect, I was particularly worried about the social stigmatization engulfing our society and wanted to ensure that all members of this venerable public policy research institution were playing from the same sheet of music and setting the highest moral example in the face of the virulently racist streak targeting our Asian-American citizens and Asian residents and guests.
In the period since I wrote this note, the situation has worsened, exacerbated in the last week when the president of the United States assigned the moniker “Chinese Virus” to the COVID-19 scourge, ostensibly, as he explains it, in retaliation for the Chinese disinformation campaign seeking to assign blame for the virus to the U.S.. No one who has been objectively watching the unfolding of this pandemic could conceivably conclude that it had emerged from anywhere other than China, or that China’s early efforts to stifle information about the virus contributed to its spread. The world knows all this, and while all of us watching this crisis in China have held the Chinese people in our thoughts and prayers, we also hoped for what could have been one of the most powerful moments in the 21st century: the U.S. and China joining forces to ease the suffering of their respective populations and to deal globally with this pandemic. Unfortunately, the leadership in both countries has failed to live up to the moment, and both populations have suffered–and will continue to suffer–immeasurably as a result. Fighting this pandemic should not be a zero-sum battle—people in both countries, and indeed around the world, all will be hurt if countries are unable to come together in confronting this crisis.
At this critical moment, we should all be concentrating on containing the spread of this terrible disease and saving our economy. Sadly, the rhetoric emanating from both sides is enormously distracting. What is most essential in this moment of crisis, as President Trump seeks to self-style himself as a wartime president, is that he act like one, lead all Americans forward, and stop trading in racist vitriol that splits our population and victimizes yet another segment of the American people under his administration. If we’re going to war against the pandemic, we’re going to need everyone.