Two days ago, President Donald Trump suddenly stopped referring to the Covid-19 coronavirus by its common name, which experts and laypeople and the president himself had been using for months, and started using a racist designation: the “Chinese virus.”
The world has been trying to move past the racist disease-naming conventions of the past in recent years, making it all the more telling that Trump has revived them in a moment of crisis. He might be annoyed that Chinese officials and media have, for their part, tried to blame the virus on America. He might want to deflect blame onto anybody else given the harsh criticism his administration has faced for being slow to respond to the outbreak.
But whatever the reason, it appears the term he’s been using — with all of its potentially dangerous consequences, particularly for Asian Americans — is now the preferred nomenclature of the White House.
Looking at Trump’s Twitter account, his megaphone to the nation, he tweeted about “coronavirus” about 40 times between January 24 (the first mention) and March 15. But on March 16, his rhetoric flipped: He hasn’t referred to the “coronavirus” at all and has instead tweeted using his new preferred racist name five times in the past two days.
I always treated the Chinese Virus very seriously, and have done a very good job from the beginning, including my very early decision to close the “borders” from China – against the wishes of almost all. Many lives were saved. The Fake News new narrative is disgraceful & false!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 18, 2020
Other variations among administration officials and Republicans in Congress include “the Chinese flu” or “the Chinese coronavirus” or “the Wuhan coronavirus.” Some of the reported comments from people around Trump are even less decorous.
This morning a White House official referred to #Coronavirus as the “Kung-Flu” to my face. Makes me wonder what they’re calling it behind my back.
— Weijia Jiang (@weijia) March 17, 2020
There is a long history of racializing pandemics by attaching them to a specific place and people, othering a pathogen that originated in another land in much the same way white Americans have historically othered people of color who came to (or whose ancestors came to) the United States from somewhere else. Trump’s comments are yet another example of this lamentable instinct and another illustration of his xenophobia in office. This is the same president who referred to some African countries as “shitholes” in advocating for restrictive immigration policies.
Trump defended his comments at a Wednesday press conference as simply striving for accuracy, after a journalist asked him about reports of prejudiced acts taken in the United States recently against people of Asian descent.
“Because it comes from China. It’s not racist at all, not at all,” the president said. “It comes from China. That’s why. It comes from China. I want to be accurate.”
But the virus and the disease it causes in humans have been referred to by experts as the novel coronavirus, Covid-19, and SARS-CoV-2, so Trump’s name for it is not at all accurate. But it does fit with the president’s history of xenophobia and of blaming problems in the US on outside actors. It is dangerous rhetoric, unbecoming of a national leader in this time of crisis.
It’s simply not true we’re supposed to call diseases by their country of origin
Whenever a pandemic pops up, we need a name for it. There are usually those used in the common parlance (like coronavirus) and then the scientific names (like SARS-CoV-2). The latter is usually produced through some kind of formula — this article in Nature explains how the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses came up with SARS-CoV-2 — but the former is more happenstance. “Coronavirus” entered the lexicon even though it covers a family of viruses, including the one that causes the common cold, and it’s stuck.
When naming the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, international leaders actually went out of their way to avoid a name with any reference to people, places, or even animals, as Vox’s Umair Irfan reported.
“We had to find a name that did not refer to a geographical location, an animal, an individual, or a group of people, and which is also pronounceable and related to the disease,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization, said in February.
But you’ll still see some of Trump’s defenders refer to the history of colloquial names that (seemingly) relied on a disease’s place of origin — like the Spanish flu, Ebola, etc. — as evidence that the president is simply following a long-held practice. This tweet from Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) is a good example of this misconception:
I don’t understand why China gets upset bc we refer to the virus that originated there the ”Chinese virus” Spain never got upset when we referred to the Spanish flu in 1918&1919
— ChuckGrassley (@ChuckGrassley) March 18, 2020
The White House has cited this history to accuse its critics of trying to divide America at a time when unity is needed.
Spanish Flu. West Nile Virus. Zika. Ebola. All named for places.
Before the media’s fake outrage, even CNN called it “Chinese Coronavirus.”
Those trying to divide us must stop rooting for America to fail and give Americans real info they need to get through the crisis.
— The White House (@WhiteHouse) March 18, 2020
But the Spanish flu didn’t get that name (real name: H1N1!) because it started in Spain. It actually started in Kansas. It became commonly known as the Spanish flu because in the middle of World War I, in which Spain remained neutral, Spain was one of the only Western nations willing to report frankly on the pandemic. As Rachel Withers wrote for Slate in 2018:
The misnomer, according to an episode of the podcast BackStory, came about as a result of geopolitical forces. When the pandemic broke out during World War I, neither side wanted the other to find out they were sick—nor did they want their own troops to lose morale or their publics to panic. News of the outbreak was suppressed or heavily underplayed in Germany, France, the U.K., and the U.S. But Spain, like Switzerland, was neutral in the war, and its media had no qualms about covering the contagious outbreak weakening its population, creating the false impression that this was a Spanish disease. As virologist John Oxford put it: “And the rest of the world I think looked around and said, ‘What’s going on in Spain?’ And so since that time, much to the annoyance of the Spanish and much to the annoyance of Spanish virologists, I can tell you, we’ve all called the Spanish flu ever since.”
Or take the Ebola virus, which, despite being named for a river in Africa, actually got that name because the scientists who discovered it wanted to avoid stigmatizing the village where the disease first appeared.
One team member suggested naming it after the village, known as Yambuku, but the other scientists pushed back. As Bahar Gholipour wrote for Live Science in 2014:
But naming the virus Yambuku would run the risk of stigmatizing the village, said another scientist, Dr. Joel Breman, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This had happened before, for example, in the case of Lassa virus, which emerged in the town of Lassa in Nigeria in 1969.
They ended up going with Ebola because an inaccurate map led them to believe it was near Yambuku and it seemed “suitably ominous.” The Ebola wasn’t actually the nearest river to the village, as they found out once they saw an accurate map, but the name stuck anyway. We have seen other recent outbreaks, like the 2015 Zika virus, also take the name of nearby natural features but not the name of the place or the people associated with where they originated.
So Trump’s preferred names are not simply an adoption of the usual formula for naming pathogens — at least not a formula the world is currently interested in following. Instead, they reflect a dark history of blaming disease on outsiders.
Trump is stoking xenophobia in a time of worldwide crisis
Though Trump and his allies are certainly wrong that calling the coronavirus “the Chinese virus” is simply following long-standing naming conventions, it is very much in keeping with a history of disease drawing out a fear of foreigners. (And let’s remember Trump has his own much more recent history of accusing immigrants of bringing infectious diseases into the country.)
“The language of disease has always been linked to our discourse around immigration,” Natalia Molina, a professor of history and American studies at the University of Southern California, told Vox’s Sean Illing. “I think it’s pretty clear that our fears about immigrants and outsiders have always been bolstered by fears about disease and contamination.”
Chinese people in particular have been the targets of outbreak-related fearmongering before in the United States. As historian James Mohr, who authored a book on the 1899 outbreak of the bubonic plague in Honolulu, Hawaii, wrote recently for Oxford University Press’s blog:
Since the early victims were Chinese, ugly cries arose for the destruction of all Asian neighborhoods on the pretext that they seemed to be breeding grounds for plague; blaming victims and increased hostility toward minorities had been hallmarks of health-related panics since ancient times
Local officials did resist the mob mentality, but their good intentions still went awry. They tried to do a controlled burn of the houses where plague victims had died to eradicate the disease, as CityLab pointed out in a recent story, but the fire grew out of control and ended up destroying 5,000 homes in the city.
Here in 2020, we’ve seen people arrested in New York City for hate crimes against Asian Americans as coronavirus fears mount. Researchers in San Francisco found more than 1,000 reported cases of xenophobia toward Chinese Americans and their communities between January 28 and February 24; one of the researchers found in an informal survey of small businesses owned by Chinese Americans that they had lost between 50 percent and 70 percent of their business in recent days.
We all have to do our part to protect against prejudice spiraling out of control in a moment of crisis. The media must be vigilant too, as Vox’s visuals editor Kainaz Amaria recently pointed out. It has become common to stick a photo of an Asian person on top of a coronavirus story, whether or not the underlying article had anything to do with an Asian country:
“In regard to editorial accuracy, meaning how close does the photography relate to the content of the story, this picture [referring to this New York Post story] is from a different location and does not relate to any element of the story,” she says. “As picture editors, we need to apply what we know about the history of xenophobia and public health into our editorial decisions when it comes to stories about coronavirus.”
But the president is not doing his part at all and doesn’t seem to grasp the gravity of his words. Instead, he risks making the situation worse.