Farhad Manjoo: The world builds a wall to keep the U.S. out

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, speaks during a media conference on the European Union response to the COVID-19 crisis at EU headquarters in Brussels, Wednesday, April 15, 2020. The European Union moved Wednesday to head off a chaotic and potentially disastrous easing of restrictions that are limiting the spread of the coronavirus, warning its 27 nations to move very cautiously as they return to normal life and base their actions on scientific advice. (John Thys, Pool Photo via AP)

You might call it poetic, if it weren’t so painful. Donald Trump won the White House largely on a campaign of shutting America’s borders to pretty much everyone other than people of European descent. “Why are we having all these people from s---hole countries come here?” he once asked, about Haitians, Salvadorans and Africans. “We should have more people from places like Norway.”

So what should one conclude about America’s own proximity to Trump’s global latrine now that “places like Norway” have decided to keep their borders indefinitely closed to us?

Among the list of nations to which Norway and the rest of Europe will soon reopen for travel are three from the continent that Trump flushed down the toilet: Algeria, Morocco and Rwanda. Canada is also on the list. So is China, assuming it reciprocates.

But Trump’s America is not, because we are nowhere close to meeting Europe’s criteria for reducing the spread of the coronavirus. How successfully a society can fight a pandemic is as objective a measure of national capacity, not to mention “greatness,” as one is likely to find — and on this, like so much else these days, America ranks near the bottom.

I have lived in the United States for more than 30 years, and I can’t think of any national failure as naked and complete as this one. When I look at the graphs showing American infections soaring while the virus abates in nearly every other affluent country, I feel the sting of defeat, misery and embarrassment.

As an immigrant from South Africa, I find it hard to resist seeing Europe’s travel dis as the ultimate comeuppance of Trump’s xenophobia. Like a lot of Americans, I sometimes find myself assuming American exceptionalism — the idea that America’s founding ideals make us morally superior to “ordinary” nations and confer on us special credibility and insight when dealing with global crises.

But America’s pandemic failure demolishes the notion that our country is better off without people and ideas from beyond our borders. The last few months should stick a fork in the absurd proposition that the United States enjoys some kind of monopoly on brilliance. Clearly, we do not. Rather than close ourselves off from the planet, we should be inviting others to join the urgent project of rebuilding America.

I bang this drum often. As I’ve argued before, I am in favor of throwing America’s borders wide open to much of the world. My primary reasons are moral — I don’t think a country founded on the idea that everyone is equal should seal itself off to the ambitious billions who live beyond our shores.

There are also powerful economic and strategic arguments for openness; American exceptionalism is impossible without immigration. The only way that a country with less than 5% of the world’s population can maintain the long-term economic and cultural superiority to which many Americans feel entitled is to collectively produce much more than 5% of the world’s best ideas.

The only way to do that is to invite in the other 95%. I spent much of my career covering Silicon Valley. Some of the most innovative companies in the world — from Google to Intel to Instagram to Stripe — were founded by immigrants, and many in the industry say the whole place would not work without immigration.

I am not one of those lefties who believe that Trump bears all of the blame for our flawed response to the virus. The breakdown here was so total that it lays bare larger and more persistent ailments: our creaking health care system, the ruthlessness of our economy, our Swiss-cheese safety net, and political polarization that poisons effective action but excels at whipping up nonsensical culture wars.

The totality of our failure is precisely why we should look to the outside for success — yet Trump has used the virus as an excuse to accelerate his restrictions on immigration.

Last week, Trump suspended the issuance of work visas for hundreds of thousands of foreigners, from tech workers to seasonal workers in the hospitality industry to au pairs and students.

Another group the restriction affects is doctors. About 127,000 doctors, nearly a quarter of the physicians in the United States, are immigrants. Many of them are now caring for coronavirus patients in communities without enough health care professionals. All the while, immigrant doctors have had to worry not only that they might die of the virus while taking care of Americans, but also that if they do, their families could be deported.

This is madness. More than that: If we keep shutting foreigners out, what justifies our arrogant assumption that the world’s best and brightest will keep wanting to come here?

Consider, for instance, Rwanda, one of the countries that did make Europe’s list. In 1994, it suffered a genocide in which the United States and the United Nations infamously refused to intervene. Almost a million people were killed. In the 26 years since, Rwanda has rebuilt itself, and now it boasts one of the most capable medical systems in Africa. Rwanda’s 13 million people have nearly universal health care coverage; the country uses drones to carry blood and other supplies to far-flung hospitals.

And when the coronavirus came, Rwanda set up contact tracing to quickly halt the spread of the virus, making it one of several African countries to squash it. To date, only two Rwandans are known to have died of COVID-19.

I truly hope that Rwandans and others witnessing America’s dysfunction are not tempted to celebrate our fall. The United States’ coronavirus failure is a loss for the world, which has long depended on American leadership to combat global crises.

The lesson here is obvious: We are all in this together. It’s time to stop pretending that America, and Americans, have all the answers. We need all the help we can get.

Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.