Modified Version of Op-Ed as Published in the April 4, 2021, Plain Dealer
Last week, in response to former CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield’s statement that he believed that the COVID-19 virus originated in a Wuhan laboratory, Ohio Lieutenant Governor Jon Husted tweeted: “So it appears it was the Wuhan Virus after all?” Dr. Tara Smith of Kent State University declared: “Asian-Americans are getting killed because of rhetoric like this. You represent my state. Do better.” The online mob swiftly piled on. Interestingly, most of these critics were not Asian-American themselves.
I worked with the Lieutenant Governor as an advisor on COVID-19 last year. He is no racist. This I shared perhaps the most important advice I’ve given him to date: be empathetic, but don’t apologize.
Why? Because he did nothing wrong. Apologizing would reinforce the false and offensive idea that Asian-Americans are connected to the actions of the Chinese Communist Party. Standing up for Asian-Americans does not require covering up the crimes of a government on the other side of the world.
Whether or not the virus escaped from a lab – an increasingly plausible theory worthy of investigation – we should recall that the viral outbreak spread fastest in its early days because of the CCP’s decision to silence its own people. Studies estimate that the total number of coronavirus cases globally could have been reduced by 95% if the original local outbreak had been recognized and addressed more quickly in Wuhan. Unfortunately, this was directly impeded by the Chinese government, which tried to conceal the existence of the virus and reprimanded physicians who alerted colleagues, ordering them to cease testing and destroy samples.
Even after videos leaked online and it became impossible for China to keep the outbreak a secret, China still denied the existence of human-to-human transmission as late as January and withheld viral genetic sequences from the global community beyond internationally mandated timelines, delaying the development of vaccines and therapeutics. Brave Chinese citizens who criticized their government for its mistakes have been jailed, silenced, or “disappeared.” While we often ignore the behavior of dictators when our own lives are unaffected, in this case the consequences were all too real: an injustice somewhere became a pandemic everywhere.
To wit, the very same thing happened almost exactly two decades ago. Communist authorities tried to cover up the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic too. It was only after several high-profile deaths in Hong Kong that outspoken scientists there uncovered the existence of the SARS virus and reported it to the World Health Organization in March 2003. It was not until April 2003, when a Chinese whistle blower revealed the true numbers of SARS infections in Beijing, that Communist authorities owned up to the full extent of the outbreak and mobilized resources to quell it. SARS ended up infecting thousands of people from 29 countries before it was stopped. This time we were less lucky. Turning this topic into a taboo makes it more likely that history will repeat itself.
The World Health Organization has tried its best to please Beijing, inventing nomenclature to purposefully obfuscate the origin of these viruses. MERS, an older corona virus, stands for “Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome.” Ebola is the name of a river in the Congo where it originated. The Zika virus was named after a forest in Uganda. Marburg virus is named after a town in Germany. Scientists routinely refer to the “UK variant” or “South African variant” of COVID-19 itself. But curiously, Wuhan and China are off limits. But to reference either China or Wuhan in connection with this virus has somehow become verboten: the sensitivities of an autocratic regime have taken precedence over an honest accounting of what went wrong.
Here’s why: the CCP has successfully weaponized the parallel pandemic of wokeness by using the threat of “racism” against the United States to evade accountability for its own actions. In recent years, the Chinese government has detained more than a million Uighurs in concentration camps and has reached its long arms to violate basic freedoms in previously autonomous territories like Hong Kong. Two years ago, when Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted from his personal account in support of Hong Kong, saying “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong,” the Chinese consulate denounced Morey. More surprisingly and disgracefully, fellow Ohioan LeBron James threw his weight behind the effort to demonize Morey, even as Mr. James vocally continued to criticize alleged racial injustices in America while lavishing praise on movements like Black Lives Matter.
Wittingly or not, public figures like Mr. James have become mere pawns in the CCP’s geopolitical game. Last year, when European officials criticized Xi Jinping for China’s treatment of the Uighurs, Mr. Jinping smoothly pivoted to pointing out how the BLM movement shows the U.S. is no better. Last month in Alaska, Yang Jiechi, China’s top diplomat, falsely claimed that black Americans were being “slaughtered,” and disingenuously stated “we hope that the United States will do better on human rights.” By drawing a false moral equivalence with the United States, the CCP uses wokeness as a tool to erode our greatest geopolitical asset of all: America’s moral standing on the global stage. Now they’re using that same tool to deflect accountability for the origin of COVID-19.
Speaking as an Asian-American, I find it more racist is to conflate the feelings of all Japanese-Americans, Korean-Americans, and Chinese-Americans by claiming that any criticism of the CCP is harmful to that entire polyglot group of diverse immigrants than it is to simply hold the CCP accountable for its actions. Of course, rising anti-Asian violence is a problem and must be addressed. But our ability to tell the difference between innocent Asian-American citizens and a corrupt foreign government is part of what defines us as Americans.
During World War II, we wrongly conflated the allegiance of patriotic Japanese-Americans at home with the actions of the Japanese emperor. We should avoid making the same mistake twice: criticizing the CCP should be entirely separate from our attitudes towards our fellow Asian-Americans.
The spread of woke culture is no longer just a cultural nuisance. It’s a societal infection that even the best of science won’t be able to cure. It’s a dangerous geopolitical weapon used by foreign powers against America in a broader conflict on the global stage. The battle lines of that war reached Ohio this week. It will take leaders like Mr. Husted to make sure that we hold the line, rather than to meekly apologize for no wrong at all. No doubt that will involve some personal sacrifice for leaders like him, but if he holds his ground then he will have earned his stripes as a true public servant.
Vivek Ramaswamy is an entrepreneur and author of the forthcoming book “Woke, Inc.” He is a native of Cincinnati and the son of Indian immigrants.