As the U.S. and China are trading barbs and playing the blame game in the Covid-19 pandemic, and against the backdrop of the U.S. government racializing the virus as “Chinese” and inciting increasing anti-Asian racism in America, a Chinese-American is stepping into the breach to save lives and find a cure for Covid-19.
Enter Dr. David Ho, America’s top scientist for infectious disease, renowned researcher for treatment of HIV/AIDS, Times Person of the Year in 1996, and recipient of Presidential Citizens Medal from President Clinton. Dr. Ho is racing against the clock and assembling a team consisting mainly of ethnic Chinese scientists to find a generalized approach that would not only cure Covid-19, but would lay the foundation to treat future mutations of the coronavirus.
— Bloomberg (@business) March 19, 2020
Ho is an ethnic Chinese from Taiwan and key members of his team are from China, with some of his former students holding top scientific positions there. Given his reputation and network of connections, he will have access to experimental compounds from Hong Kong and Shanghai for his investigation not likely available to anyone else, and his multinational and multidisciplinary team is mapping out an accelerated plan of attack.
Americans should probably feel relieved that Dr. Ho and his team are still available in the U.S. when the virus outbreak occurred, and have not yet been decimated by years of purging ethnic Chinese/Chinese-American scientists from U.S. research institutions, including from basic and cancer research, by the Department of Justice.
Monetization of medical science and purging of Chinese-American scientists
Over the past years, the FBI has been targeting and prosecuting, at times persecuting, Asian American scientists in what some see as a new Red Scare under Director Christopher Wray. Due to increasing monetization and commoditization of public goods such as basic research and medical science research, international collaboration in science is now quasi-criminalized, with FBI agents reading private emails, stopping Chinese scientist at airports, and visiting people’s homes to ask about their loyalty.
While there have been some legitimate cases of espionage and criminal activity, many cases have been bungled from lack of evidence, so much so that Congress has launched an investigation into the FBI for racial profile and discrimination against ethnic Chinese scientists. In what seems to be a sad twist of irony, the Department of Justice, entrusted with upholding justice, rule of law and due process, is now viewed as meting out injustice and violating civil liberties of Americans of Asian heritage.
According to a June 2019 Bloomberg Business week article, due to the economic cold war with China, U.S. now largely classifies basic research collaboration as economic espionage. The National Institute of Health works closely with the FBI in this crackdown, justifying that since basic research knowledge has an intrinsic value that could be potentially patented by big pharma for profit, in essence scientists sharing this information is deemed as intellectual property theft because “what you’re doing is stealing other people’s ideas.”
However, agents investigating cases of “economic espionage” or “sharing proprietary information” often lack the adequate scientific background to make those determinations, resulting in many false arrests and imprisonments. The crackdown is also dampening medical science research in the U.S., where the mission is not about developing patentable drugs, but about reducing risks to save lives. Prevention is not a product that could be sold or stolen, and in the case of cancer research, it is not clear if the Bureau understands it can take two decades from discovery of a promising molecule to approval of a chemotherapy drug.
Unfortunately, Washington commodifying public goods such as basic research in science or public health, and criminalizing research collaboration, has driven many talented ethnic Chinese scientists out of the country, and for the past years Dr. Ho has been warning about U.S. government-sanctioned racism against ethnic Chinese researchers. Now, the White House finds itself in a place of relying on Dr. Ho and his team to lead America’s fight against Covid-19 to find a cure, and one wonders if this could be a clarion call to stop the persecution and find a better solution balancing national security and scientific openness.
Growing persecution of Asian American healthcare professionals
Sadly, in this current climate of increasing anti-Asian racism fueled by toxic rhetoric in Washington and amplified by the virus crisis, Dr. Ho and his team are likely at risk of being attacked even while they work to save American lives. The same applies to many healthcare professionals and scientists battling the coronavirus that are Asian-Americans, who disproportionately make up these groups. The racist attackers don’t seem to realize that when they attack these fellow Americans because of their looks, they are attacking the very people who are trying to help and who may be the one to save theirs and their loved ones’ lives.
As Dr. Edward Chew, the head of the emergency department at a large Manhattan hospital testifies, even while he is on the front lines of fighting Covid-19, he noticed people trying to cover their nose and mouth with their shirts when they are near him, and one night he was harassed by three men while shopping for protective gear for his staff at Home Depot. Likewise, Mr. Du, volunteer-trainee with Maryland’s emergency medical workers, fears harassment and is considering buying additional firearms for self-defense. Other Asian healthcare workers share similar experiences and fear.
Members of Congress are also not immune to attacks. Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif), who spent his life protecting Americans as a former U.S. Air Force officer and is still a Colonel in the Reserves, says he fears for his safety when leaving his home to get groceries in the face of rising anti-Asian hate crimes. This is a sobering statement for an American soldier to make, one that exposes the deep rifts within American society.
Sadly, at a time when everyone is dealing with a health pandemic, instead of Americans working together, a segment of the population is being singled out for abuse and misplaced anger, even while U.S. leaders continue to racialize the pandemic and endanger them. This is the despairing story of too many Asian Americans now, and while Covid-19 will eventually go away, it is unsure if American society as a whole will recover from the virus’ ugly anti-Asian manifestations.