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Renewed Scapegoating: Political Rhetoric and the Other in a Time of Pandemic

Andi Haxhiu

As the advancement in medical response has significantly impacted the ways the world deals with viruses, there is one constant search for a scapegoat that, despite the development of technology, resurfaces as the alternative that redirects attention in times of crisis. When the bubonic plague was sweeping through Europe seven centuries ago, it was the Jews who were blamed for the Black Death. Historians argue that many of them were massacred because of the collective belief that they were spreading the sickness through poisoning wells and deliberate attempts to infect others.

Today, approximately 670 years later, using a strikingly similar divisive rhetoric of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ the President of the United States, Donald Trump, refers to COVID-19 as the “Chinese” virus. This stigmatising rhetoric that frames the Other as a national security threat serves the scapegoating tendencies that shift discussions from science to politics. As a result, the COVID-19 outbreak has evolved into a political alibi for numerous leaders that have used it to reproduce an ethnonationalist rhetoric that makes democracy vulnerable to authoritarian agendas, as well as actualise scepticism towards globalisation, migration, and ethnic minorities simultaneously. However, despite Trump administration’s insistence to name it the “Chinese Virus” and continue this isolationist and stigmatising rhetoric, three members of the G-7 have openly rejected this label because of its pejorative and needlessly divisive meaning.

As of 2015, the WHO has updated naming practices of diseases, syndromes, and infections while encouraging to avoid the inclusion of geographical locations (e.g., Middle East Respiratory Syndrome or Spanish Influenza), people’s names (e.g., Chagas disease), species of animal or food (e.g., Swine flu), and terms that incite panic and fear in public opinion (fatal, unknown, and epidemic). The new guidelines for naming practices have been developed to avoid certain political stigmatisation towards different ethnic communities and economic sectors. However, even after 2015 WHO updating of naming practices, the political quest for this “presumptuous Othering” in times of a pandemic imposes a collective sense of security that the disease is not amongst ‘us’ but rather something that comes from ‘them’.  

Almost 100 years ago when the Spanish Influenza spread all over Europe, its stigmatising name derived as a consequence of Spain’s neutral position that allowed media reporting without any sort of censorship throughout World War I. Although the scientific data suggests that the virus was born in either a pig farm in Kansas or in China, Spain lived with the burden of being falsely stigmatised because countries involved in the war did not allow the media to publicly share any signs of ‘weaknesses’. On the other hand, Spanish people referred to the 1918 influenza with the same stigmatising rhetoric that referred to the virus as the ‘French Flu.’ Similarly, the Germans were trying to blame the Russians and the virus was named the ‘Russian Pest’. Therefore, given that the central event in 1918’s was World War I, there were numerous incentives amongst antagonising states to seek a scapegoat. Following the situation, the ‘Spanish Flu’ constituted itself within people’s memory as the official name of the pandemic, even though the pandemic itself “attracted a kaleidoscope” of scapegoating attempts at the time.

However, continuous attempts to build strategies that deals with pandemics have often failed to manage this particular trait of searching for the ‘Other’ as the scapegoat. No matter how much time there has passed and how societies have evolved, scapegoating serves as the last-standing resource within the political rhetoric that deliberately constructs differences and cleavages. As such, for there to be an ‘Us,’ there has to be a relational opposite – an ‘Other.’ Therefore, as current developments attest, division and scapegoating will remain an essential part of political discourse for there is no ‘us’ without ‘them.’ This dualism is indispensable for understanding power dynamics nationally and internationally because the meaning of power itself exists only through a relational opposite. This means that scapegoating in times of COVID-19 is not about the virus today, but rather for who will be in a position of power tomorrow – ‘us’ or ‘them?’

Andi Haxhiu holds a MSc in Nationalism Studies from the University of Edinburgh.