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Last week, my husband and I attended a family party in New York. Joking about “social distance,” family members did refrain from hugging as enthusiastically as we might ordinarily have done, and the cousin who had just returned from Milan was mock-shunned and chided for not informing us of his travels before he had intruded into the new, six-foot diameter personal space bubble we’d been told we should maintain around ourselves.
My husband and I got home from New York just as the cancellation cascade commenced and things began to look less ha-ha and more serious. Family e-mails have been arriving daily, offering health updates; one family member has a slight fever, everyone else seems okay, wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands. Had we known then (that is, two weeks ago) what we know now, the party might have been canceled altogether. Certainly, my Milan-visiting cousin would’ve been politely un-invited, or offered the option of virtual attendance via Skype. After all, the focus of the party was my aunt’s 85th birthday. She’s hale and hearty, but … she’s 85.
In other words, my fairly well-fed and generally healthy American family has responded to the Wuhan pandemic by (admittedly retroactively and imaginatively) agreeing to exclude a beloved family member from our midst.
This makes me wonder how the pandemic is going to affect European and American attitudes toward immigrants.
After all, whatever fantasies Joe Biden and Ayanna Pressley offer us, xenophobia is the age-old response to a novel virus for a reason: human beings are what moves a human-threatening virus from one place to another. If my cousin had indeed picked up a little Wuhan in Milan, separating him from my aunt (mask, wall, a dozen city-blocks, or a continent) would keep her safe.
And so, with Wuhan, the No-Walls-No-Borders crowd have been presented with one of the entirely predictable problems associated with the untrammeled movement of people around the planet. Along with our charming cultures and vibrant diversity, we humans carry diseases with us wherever we go, including some nasty ones.
For years, I’ve found myself pointing out the obvious to well-educated but apparently incurably romantic friends that Europeans aren’t storming barbed-wire barricades to enter Turkey en route to Iraq or Sudan, any more than Americans in search of free education have been setting off for Cuba on makeshift rafts ever since El Jefe took power. The direction of travel is always the same — away from violence, poverty and oppression and toward safety, a decent standard of living, and (relative) freedom. And, I would argue, migrants are moving toward America and Europe and away from countries with less sanitation, less immunization, less-than-adequate public health systems. Therefore, both refugees and economic migrants are not only more likely to have pre-existing health problems and thus to be a burden on the healthcare systems of the country that offers them refuge, but are also relatively likely to be carriers of illnesses both old (typhoid, whooping cough, measles, bubonic plague, tuberculosis) and new (woo-hoo Wuhan!)
Iran, to name one example, is overwhelmed with Wuhan; their people are dying in sufficient numbers as to be interred in mass graves. Because Iran is a horrible place to live, Iranians have been among the refugees swarming toward Europe’s border.
How quickly would the virus spread from one infected migrant to the rest in circumstances like those pictured below?
So what effect will this pandemic have on European and American views of immigration? How quickly will fear of contagion curdle the milk of human kindness in European veins, or harden the hearts of those American sanctuary city-dwellers? When immigration doesn’t pose an abstract existential threat to Europeans but a very concrete one, will the old blandishments of Mutti Merkel and Co. (“We can do this!”) come to be seen as a betrayal? Will genuine xenophobes ride the Wuhan express to power? What do you think, dear Ricochetti?Published in