Heads of government will be judged by posterity on the intelligence and integrity with which they are facing the COVID-19 challenge. Going by his record so far, US President Donald Trump will be remembered primarily for his attempts to duck it or to politicise a public health disaster as he seeks a second term. Both these factors were on show on Tuesday, when he dismissed the “China virus” again and intensified the push to reopen educational institutions fully, with serious implications for foreign students, American businesses and families. American schools and colleges are rightly considering the reopening process with extreme caution, and like in other countries, a significant part of academic life has gone online. This presents a political problem for Trump, whose response has consisted almost entirely of downplaying the pandemic, which is taking a mounting toll in the US.
On Tuesday, in a meeting in the White House, Trump resolved to take a can opener to the country’s schools. He would even pressure governors to reopen them, he indicated darkly. Trump has charged that schools are being kept closed for political reasons, to prevent the US from returning to normal life. On the same day, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) bureau published a draconian notification alarming the million-odd foreign students in the US, which include about 2 lakh Indians and 4 lakh Chinese. They must leave the country or face deportation proceedings if their institutions have moved instruction completely online. They must attend some physical classes, perhaps by moving to a campus which offers them, or leave before they are thrown out.
Indian students may have become collateral damage in an attack on two targets — their Chinese peers, who form the largest cohort of foreign students, and campuses which depend on the fees they pay, but refuse to physically reopen. But the White House should remember that the pre-eminence of US technology and business owes to the creativity and industry of immigrants. The loss of Indian human capital would be felt across the board, from education, medicine and IT to hospitality. In his enthusiasm to pander to xenophobes, Trump should not forget that the US success story was written by immigrants. With Harvard and MIT filing a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security and ICE agency in a district court in Boston, challenging the ill-judged order on international students — Harvard President Larry Bacow called it cruel and reckless — a heartening push back has begun.