Updated: Jul 24, 2020
On March 16, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, President Trump’s official Twitter account posted a tweet about supporting industries during the pandemic. In that tweet, he referred to COVID-19 as the “Chinese Virus.”
This quote came just days after CDC Director Robert Redfield emphasized how inappropriate and dangerous it is to refer to COVID-19 as being “Chinese.” While Trump initially defended his use of the term, saying it was accurate, he has since said that he will stop using the term “Chinese virus.” But it’s not just conservatives who have been using this terminology. Many media outlets have used language like this as well: there have been many instances of reporters saying “Wuhan coronavirus” and “Chinese coronavirus” on CNN, a more left-leaning news source. Such inflammatory rhetoric coming from influential figures can only encourage others to use it, too. This poses a real danger for Asians in America, who now have to deal with increased racism in addition to the troubles that we are all facing due to COVID-19.
There have been many diseases named after the regions they originated from or where they were particularly prominent, such as Spanish flu, Ebola virus and norovirus. In the case of the Spanish flu, the virus responsible for the 1918 pandemic, the first reported case actually came from Kansas. However, during World War I when the outbreak began, Spain had more free media than most other countries because it was neutral, so the first reporting about the virus came from there. Hence, the name Spanish flu was coined – even though, according to History.com, the Spanish themselves thought the flu came from France and called it the French flu.
The Ebola virus was discovered in Zaire, a country now called the Democratic Republic of Congo. According to Live Science, the Ebola virus was not named for the village in which it first appeared, Yambuku, because the scientists who discovered it didn’t want the village to become a target. Instead, it was named after the Ebola River, which is nearby to Yambuku. Norovirus popped up in an elementary school in Norwalk, Ohio, where 150 students became very ill. The term “norovirus,” derived from Norwalk, became the name for this virus and its relatives, which frequently cause outbreaks in schools.
In the cases of Spanish flu, the Ebola virus and norovirus, we didn’t see the kind of systemic racism that we do in the case of COVID-19. The name “coronavirus” has been around since the first human coronaviruses appeared in the 1960s, and has nothing to do with China. According to the Associated Press, “corona” refers to the spikes on the surface of the virus, which resemble the corona around the sun. Different strains of the coronavirus cause diseases such as SARS and MERS, and now COVID-19 (which stands for coronavirus disease 2019 — again, nothing to do with China). These diseases do not discriminate by race and someone who is of Asian descent is no more likely to get COVID-19 than someone who is white. Additionally, while Ebola virus and norovirus in particular were named simply to indicate a geographic area, the term “Chinese virus” not only directs the blame to a place but also to an entire ethnic identity.
However, despite that fact, Asians across the world have reported being discriminated against because of their race and the perceived danger that they pose in carrying the virus. An article from The New York Times tells the story of several Asian-Americans who fear coughing or even existing in public, lest they be attacked either verbally or physically. One woman from San Francisco who is referenced in the story was spit on by a passerby, who also yelled at a bus driver to run her over. A 16-year-old boy in California was attacked at school because his bullies believed he had COVID-19. It was so severe that he had to go to the nurse’s office to see if he had a concussion. The New York Times also reports that in some areas, people have been setting up Facebook groups to coordinate buddy systems for Asian-Americans so that the danger of being caught alone isn’t so high. Not only is all of this violent, hateful racism completely immoral, but the fear of Asians also has no basis in any sort of fact. At the beginning of the outbreak, many Asian-Americans hadn’t been to any part of Asia recently, much less to the Wuhan region where COVID-19 originated. At this point in late March, anyone in the U.S., regardless of their race, is vulnerable to infection because the U.S. has surpassed the number of cases of both China and Italy.
Blaming Asians for the spread of COVID-19 is unfair, uneducated and uncalled for. The entire world is fighting a pandemic that is both easily spread and potentially deadly, and creating rifts based on race is the exact opposite of what society needs right now. In order to flatten the curve of COVID-19, everyone needs to band together, and that means recognizing that no one is at fault for this.
By Olivia Slack, Online Editor