The fear of foreigners bringing disease to Europe is back.
Some populist parties in Europe are seizing on the coronavirus outbreak — which has sickened almost 70,000 people and killed more than 1,700, mostly in China — to call for border closures and temporary stops on migration, two core elements of their agenda.
“The free circulation of goods and people, immigration policies and weak controls at the borders obviously allow the exponential spread of this type of virus,” exclaimed Aurélia Beigneux, an MEP from Frances right-wing National Rally, during a European Parliament debate in early February.
Beigneux then asked Andrea Ammon, the director of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), whether Europe would be better off reintroducing land border checks and stopping immigration, at least temporarily.
Delivering a diplomatic “no,” Ammon said that closing the Schengen zone lacks scientific justification. The World Health Organization has also advised against restricting travel and trade, while EU health ministers meeting in Brussels last week said that any travel measures meant to contain the spread of the virus should safeguard free movement within the EU.
Police escort a bus transporting French citizens after leaving The Vacanciel Holiday Resort in Carry-le-Rouet, near Marseille | Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images
But those arguments havent dampened populist rhetoric, most of which is directed at ethnic Chinese. And in a new twist, some members of Italys right-wing League party and the populist 5Star Movement are raising concerns the virus could be spread by African migrants arriving by boat to Europe, given the continents economic ties with China.
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Spains far-right party Vox has also jumped on the bandwagon. According to Redacción Médica, party officials have asked Madrid to close all entry points from China to the country. Theyre pointing to Italy — which took that step at the end of January — as well as the U.S., which has banned the entry of all those suspected of carrying the virus, as models.
A Vox member went further on social media. After Chinese scientists reported that pangolins could be an intermediate host for the coronavirus, Fernando Martínez Vidal, a Vox councilor in Madrid, tweeted: “If I get lost, dont look for me in a Chinese [restaurant].”