The image of foreigners spreading disease is rich terrain for the far right. It’s a version of what the American eugenicist-ecologist Garrett Hardin termed “lifeboat ethics.” An inspiration for the far right, Hardin in the 1970s imagined a zero-sum game for planetary survival, where the world’s mostly black and brown poor would compete with the wealthy for resources, threatening to pollute air, water, and bloodlines alike toward disastrous ends. Keeping people out, Hardin argued, prevents them from being a drain on nature and allows the rest of the population to stay healthier and more genetically pure. In addition to draconian immigration measures, he pushed for population control. “We never really conquer any diseases finally,” Hardin argued in an interview toward the end of his life, “and the bigger the population is, the harder it is to control.”
White supremacy and closed borders are as poor an answer to the coronavirus as they are to the climate crisis and certainly won’t solve either problem, making life far more dangerous for many as the world warms. Like it or not, we’re all in this boat together. As pointed out yesterday even by the thoroughly Republican Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, “We cannot hermetically seal off the United States to a virus.”
There are, in fact, well-known and effective steps an interested government could take to defend against the coronavirus. Yet few places seem as ill-suited for dealing with a pandemic as the U.S. under the current administration. Our patchy, expensive, and inefficient health care system is already charging people thousands of dollars to get tested for the coronavirus, discouraging the kind of early diagnosis necessary for containment. The expense could prevent millions from seeking treatment, spurring the spread and death count alike. Meanwhile, 40-plus years of right-wing attacks on the public sphere have drained capacity and talent from the government, making it harder to take on big problems at scale. And a bipartisan panic about budget deficits has made large-scale spending on anything but wars virtually unthinkable.