[Editor's note: The following is part of a special series on the coronavirus pandemic, featuring original poems and essays by contributors to The Bare Life Review. New entries will be added every Tuesday and Friday. Previous entries in the series can be found here.]
The US president and the Nigerian president share one thing in common. A fascination with borders. After Trump erected barriers at the US-Mexico border and hauled migrating families into forceful detention, Buhari in August of 2019 battened down Nigeria’s southern frontiers—ostensibly to halt rice smuggling—imperiling the livelihood of families who depend on the border-trade between Nigeria and neighboring countries to feed their children.
The novel coronavirus has marched into both countries, undeterred by these artificial fetters. From here in the US I’ve noted how people in Nigeria and America—steered by two leaders who stimulate nationalist sentiments—have reacted to the presence of Asians in the aftermath of COVID-19’s spread.
Nigerians are not known for xenophobia, but I’ve browsed online comments by normal Nigerians praising President Buhari’s agonizing border closure (one read, Other Africans must know when Nigeria sneezes Africa catches cold,) so I was not very surprised, some weeks ago, to find a Facebook video of a bleeding, recumbent Chinese man being verbally assaulted by a Lagos mob. A man’s voice is heard in the video bellowing, He’s got the virus in him!
Although clarifications have surfaced, saying the man had not been targeted because the crowd conflated his race with the pandemic—that he had slapped a cab driver and in turn earned a mob-delivered reprisal—one might argue that the global knowledge of the virus’s origin contributed to the severity of the man’s fate.
There’s more. Early in March, the Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, situated in the cradle of Igbo civilization, suspended the teaching of a mandarin course at the institution over fears of COVID-19. Chinese professors visiting home were ordered to remain there. Those still in Nigeria received notices to abandon travel plans.
Here in the US the treatment of Asians is probably worse. A recent New York Times article detailed accounts of Asian-Americans cursed at as they took out their trash, spat at as they jogged on familiar streets, punched and kicked on the subway. By normal-looking people. And it hasn’t helped that President Trump called COVID-19 the “Chinese virus.” Whether consciously or subconsciously, citizens take cues from their president.
The urgency of the “American situation” grips harder when you’re an eyewitness to an incident, as I was a few weeks ago. At the Urgent Care of Tallahassee Memorial Hospital. About eight of us waited in the glazed, starbright room when a gracile Asian woman and her daughter quietly slid in, looking down, seemingly aware of potential hostility. They hadn’t moved two feet when the college student in the corner began to glare at them in brazen confrontation. Her eyes wide and unblinking, a scowl shifting into her features. Her neck swiveled to invite me into her conspiracy, gaze pleading, Imagine the audacity of these people showing up here with their virus, and I’m not ashamed to say that I gave her the stink eye.
I write this as an Igbo immigrant who was born and grew up in the Yoruba part of Nigeria, and listened to Igbo family members and Yoruba friends and acquaintances point fingers at the other tribe and lay the blame for Nigeria’s malfunction at the feet of the “outsider.” What always struck me about those tribal stereotypes and incendiary rhetoric was how certain each person was that they were right and justified. And how dubious and gratuitous it all seemed when I viewed each tribe’s behavior in isolation. How morally wrong.
Regardless of geographic location, we should call out these ugly attacks on Asians when we encounter them. Xenophobia and racism, and tribalism, and hot-spun conspiracy theories only make us comfortable in our ignorance.
When we show love and understand the plight of our neighbor—when we override our own native rudimentary impulses, only then can we stand near the height of advanced social and cultural development. Only then can the world be a better place.
Iheoma Nwachukwu is from Nigeria. He has won fellowships from the Chinua Achebe Center for Writers at Bard College, and the Michener Center for Writers in Austin. His fiction has appeared in or is forthcoming from The Iowa Review, The Southern Review, Crazyhorse, Colorado Review, Wasafiri, Internazionale, and elsewhere. A former professional chess player, Nwachukwu teaches at Florida State University, where he obtained a Ph.D. in fiction, and received a Bailey fellowship. His poem, "Migrant #149 & #150," appeared in TBLR Volume 1