As if we needed any more evidence as to how divided we are, here is the President of the United States taking a Sharpie to his March 19, 2020 briefing notes to make 100% sure he calls it the “Chinese virus” rather than the “coronavirus”:
We all know people who think this isn’t just perfectly appropriate but imperative. While other people – like me, and most of the global public health community – object pretty strongly to that choice of language.
Trump and his supporters see those objections as nothing more than political correctness. And a great deal of unproductive yelling typically ensues. So I want to explore this in a bit more depth – but no, I don’t pretend to be at all dispassionate about it.
To the extent that one could be dispassionate at a time like this, one would probably start by comparing the reasons to avoid the term with the reasons to use it. Then one could make a judgment about whose set of reasons are more compelling.
So, let’s begin with the reasons to avoid the phrase.
First: we’ve already seen physical violence and verbal abuse against Asians based on the raving imaginations of idiots who blame them for the spread of the virus here. It seems likely that the wider use of the phrase “Chinese virus” will make those kinds of events more common, just as there’s some evidence that the president’s ascendancy and approach to his job may have promoted increased incivility and bullying in schools.
For many of us, this is more than enough reason to stick with coronavirus or COVID-19. Others, admittedly, seem far less troubled by real or potential bigotry against America’s 3.8 million citizens of Asian descent, or against other Asians who happen to live and work here. I’m more accustomed to the indifference of many of my fellow citizens to bigotry than I was four years ago. But I don’t like it one bit more than I did the day Trump first rolled down his escalator.
If the encouragement of bigotry weren’t enough, there are also the concerns of global health professionals, whose experience tells them that linking a disease to an ethnic group makes it harder to achieve the cross-cultural and international cooperation needed to end any pandemic. These public health experts worry that more people will die: even people who aren’t Asians being stomped by xenophobes.
Precisely how does stoking ethnic resentment help us end this pandemic and get life back to normal? Who does it help to have lunatic Americans blaming secret Chinese military labs near Wuhan and lunatic Chinese blaming secret U.S. Army labs? Cui bono?
So we have at least two reasons not to use the phrase. Once again, for some of us, even the first reason was sufficient. Taken together, they seem compelling to me.
As an aside, it’s not as if anyone’s focused on the name at the expense of other issues. Like, for example, Why are we so far behind in testing? Or Why did the President think it was smart to eliminate his pandemic response coordination team? We can pay attention to more than one thing at a time. But these seem like reasonable answers to the question “It’s just a name. Why does it bother you?”
Obviously Trump and some other folks see it differently. So let’s turn the question around and try to figure out “Why is calling it the ‘Chinese virus’ so important to them that it overrides these other concerns and values?”
As is so often the case, people are rarely explicit about their reasons. We have to do some inferring based on what they do say. We’ll do the best we can, knowing we won’t be perfect (and admitting that 3+ years into the Trump era, we’ve formed some unfortunate preconceptions about some of our fellow citizens that are difficult to put aside).
Let’s first dispose of (what seems to me) the silliest argument: “It came from China! Nobody objected when the 1918 influenza pandemic was called the Spanish flu!”
Actually, while we’re still not 100% certain, it’s unlikely that the Spanish flu actually started in Spain. As a neutral nation in World War I, Spain didn’t censor press reports about the outbreak, while combatant nations like France and Germany did. So it looked like Spain was the source because everyone else was hiding the information from their adversaries. But it was apparently an unfair accusation. (That happens: see Black Death.)
And the Spanish did object, loudly and repeatedly. From Laura Spinney’s book Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World:
Not surprisingly, this label almost never appears in contemporary Spanish sources. Practically the only exception is when Spanish authors write to complain about it. “Let it be stated that, as a good Spaniard, I protest this notion of the ‘Spanish fever,'” railed a doctor named Garcia Troviño in a Hispanic medical journal. Many in Spain saw the name as just the latest manifestation of the ‘Black Legend’, anti-Spanish propaganda that grew out of rivalry between the European empires in the sixteenth century, and that depicted the conquistadors as even more brutal than they were…
OK, what about the broader “educational” claim? “By using that name, we’ll teach people where it came from.”
You basically get to use a virus’s name to teach people one fact about it. Calling it “coronavirus” would tell people something about its shape and the family of viruses it’s part of. (We’ve done that before; see rotavirus.) If you were interested in science, that might be interesting or even useful.
Or you could call it something like “bat virus” to identify the animal it may have jumped from – e.g., eastern equine encephalitis virus – also, potentially useful data. Or you might name it after its discoverer(s), like Epstein-Barr virus. Perhaps most helpful, you might choose a name that describes how it behaves — think: human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). (Here’s a deeper look at the complexities and politics of virus nomenclature.)
From the public’s standpoint, though, once a virus has spread widely, it’s not obvious that the most useful data is the country (or ethnic group) which suffered from it first. Now that Lyme disease is widespread, how much do you benefit from knowing that it was first discovered in Lyme, Connecticut?
If not education, perhaps a geopolitical point is being made? Maybe we want to use the virus’s name to call out a government that used authoritarian methods to hide the virus from the world for the first few weeks, instead of providing full information to help us prepare? Maybe we want to call out a government whose market regulations are so weak that it permitted viruses to easily jump between animals and humans?
Somehow, though, I haven’t heard anyone call it the “Chinese Communist Party Virus.” Why not? Why instead attach the name indiscriminately to an entire ethnic group?
If this were about policy, why aren’t the same people demanding to get to the bottom of the report that the Trump administration classified key meetings on coronavirus and held them in places where key people without national security clearances couldn’t participate – thereby delaying an effective response? If that happened, it sounds like something the Chinese Communists might’ve done, no?
Why aren’t the same people objecting to the Trump administration’s rule changes that dramatically speed up chicken processing lines beyond the ability of any USDA inspector to protect us against pathogens – and eliminate those limits in some pork plants altogether? Or Trump’s attempt – continuing right now! – to let nursing homes get away with not having dedicated on-site infection control professionals? Even part-time?
If they’re really objecting to the irresponsibility of a government that doesn’t care enough about human health to put people ahead of profit, they’re doing one helluva lousy job of it.
Or maybe calling it the “Chinese virus” is a way of supporting the argument that the United States ought to shift the terms of trade with the People’s Republic of China? But someone will have to explain to me precisely how it supports that argument, because the logical connection between the name of a virus and America’s optimal trade policy completely eludes me.
Suffice to say, if these are the arguments intended to overcome the objection of bigotry and associated hate crimes, they seem pretty flimsy. I’m left with the idea that Trump sees stirring up bigotry as a positive good and a political opportunity (and that a lot of other folks think so, too.) Hey, if you can indiscriminately attack Mexicans, and American Muslims, and Somali refugees, and 40%+ of the American people still support you, why not attack Chinese people, too?
I don’t always buy slippery slope arguments. But here’s one I do buy. If you can indiscriminately and unfairly link the “Chinese” to this virus, why not the orthodox religious communities where it spread so widely in New Rochelle, New York and elsewhere? Bigots could just as easily decide, indiscriminately and unfairly, to name this (or the next) virus after a religious faith and its practitioners. Anyone who’s studied the Nazis will know exactly what that would sound like.
Or they could equally indiscriminately and unfairly name the virus after some other group of Americans that’s seemed relatively indifferent to safeguarding the rest of us against it. They could look at the Florida spring breakers and unfairly name it the “Gen Z Virus” or “Millennial Virus.” Or what about the evangelical Christian ministers who deliberately defied warnings about holding large services? As long as it’s OK to be recklessly unfair, why not call it the “Evangelical Virus”?
In each case you’d be irresponsibly generalizing about an entire group from the behavior of a few – or hardly any – or maybe none. See how it feels?
Or maybe we could look at the right-wing media figures and politicians who spent weeks calling coronavirus a hoax, or their followers who say they still haven’t changed their behavior even now. What if we called it the “Conservative Virus”?
See how that feels?
It’s irresponsible. It’s wrong. But we have a President who does stuff like that every single day. And that Sharpie picture tells you he’s even doing it now, in the midst of a pandemic.
It’s stirring the pot. It’s making us even angrier with each other. It’s what he’s so good at. It’s what he thinks will get him re-elected, just as it did the first time. But it doesn’t do a damn thing to get us safely out of our houses and back to work. It sure won’t help us live together when we finally do.
Trump has never had a majority and he doesn’t today. We have a job to do, whether we do it in person, by mail, online, or whatever. That job is to make sure we massively outvote him this November. It’s just a start on ending the era of bigotry he exemplifies and exacerbates. But without that start, life in America will only get worse. Social distancing may limit the spread of coronavirus, but Trump proves it has zero impact on the transmission of hatred.