The rapid spread of the coronavirus is, for good reason, causing a global panic. Almost every region of the world is affected, with the disease rapidly spreading to new areas.

Fear is justifiable. Directing it against people who have nothing to do with the crisis is reprehensible.

Donald Trump, for instance, has been referring to the coronavirus as “the Chinese virus.”

Pandemics can start anywhere — the coronavirus says nothing more about China than the “Spanish” flu of 1918 says about Kansas, where it originated. Yet Trump continues to use this racist labeling even after being warned about rising hate crimes against people of East Asian descent.

Similarly, Trump is using the pandemic to justify his border wall, claiming this pet project will keep Americans safe from the virus. Scientists from his own government say it will do no such thing, but of course Trump is known for his disdain for science.

Meanwhile, as the pandemic spreads, U.S. immigration agencies continue their raids, detentions, and deportations. This is extraordinarily cruel on multiple levels.

It separates families when people need their families more than ever. It wastes resources that could be directed to urgent public health needs. Most of all, it swells the overcrowded and unsanitary immigration detention system, putting immigrants and the entire public at risk.

These makeshift detention centers that warehouse entire families — including infants — are breeding grounds for pandemics. Even before covid-19, 700 detainees were reported to have contracted mumps, and at least three children have died from the flu.

The government will even not administer flu shots in these prisons, or allow others to do so. How can it possibly prepare for coronavirus?

It takes a truly depraved level of disregard for life to hold human beings in these conditions. That disregard extends to the countries these immigrants are deported to.

As of March 23, World Health Organization data reported 32,000 coronavirus cases in the U.S., with the predominant mechanism for spread being “local transmission.” In Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador — three key countries where migrants are deported to — the respective numbers were 18, 26, and 1, with substantially all of the confirmed cases being imported.

Far from the xenophobic rhetoric of foreigners bringing illnesses to the United States, then, it’s the U.S. government that is potentially exporting a pandemic to less wealthy countries.

It’s worth remembering that so many refugee families were forced to flee their homes as a result of our misguided trade policies, our bloody wars, coups and fraudulent elections we’ve backed, and the climate effects of our greenhouse gas emissions.

Not only are we closing our borders to people suffering these impacts now, but we’re warehousing them in disease incubators and then deporting them to the countries least able to grapple with the resulting pandemic.

If conditions are this cruel now, imagine what it will be like as climate change accelerates. The number of people displaced by climate disruption is expected to grow to more than 140 million in the coming decades.

The ugliness we already see on display — of a health crisis being used to harden borders and spread hate speech — could be but a small taste of things to come. That’s why we need to act now — not only to control this pandemic and reverse the damage of climate change, but to stop the cancer of hatred before it metastasizes any further.

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Basav Sen

Basav Sen directs the Climate Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.