In tweets and public statements, the president of the United States is using racist language to describe the coronavirus, calling it the “Chinese virus.” The demagogy and scapegoating of foreigners is familiar. What’s new is that Trump is using this tactic to deflect from his own glaring failures to prepare the country and his administration for this pandemic, which now threatens to overwhelm American hospitals as it also brings the economy to a halt.
The novel coronavirus has become a worldwide pandemic. While the virus was first observed in Wuhan, China, in mid-December, it has since spread across the globe and is hitting Italy the hardest.
Public-health officials have long inveighed against linking a disease to the population where it first surfaces. It not only stigmatizes the first victims, it can slow effective global response. We have a dark history of this in America, where HIV was for long maligned as a “gay plague,” and the world delayed responding to the crisis for years, ultimately costing millions of lives.
The World Health Organization has adopted neutral language to describe this outbreak (the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19 disease), and its leadership has spoken out strongly about not stigmatizing the virus by its country of origin. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom went so far as to call stigma “more dangerous than the virus itself,” while encouraging the world to stand in “unison” to defeat the pandemic.
DON'T – attach locations or ethnicity to the disease, this is not a “Wuhan Virus”, “Chinese Virus” or “Asian Virus”.
The official name for the disease was deliberately chosen to avoid stigmatizationhttps://t.co/yShiCMfYF3 pic.twitter.com/belHrq5HVo
— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) March 2, 2020
That warning has fallen on deaf ears in the White House.
The president — who has repeatedly misled Americans about the seriousness of the disease, likening it to the common flu, and going so far as to label it a “hoax” — is under fire for endangering the lives of millions with his delayed response and the administration’s continued inability to roll out widespread testing.
On Monday, the president began his campaign to rebrand the virus with a nasty nickname, as though coronavirus were one of his political opponents:
The United States will be powerfully supporting those industries, like Airlines and others, that are particularly affected by the Chinese Virus. We will be stronger than ever before!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 16, 2020
Trump has used the term in at least four separate tweets since then. (The president was not the first GOP politician in Washington to resort to this kind of demagoguery. Others have used the term the “Wuhan Virus“; Trump seems to have simplified the scapegoating by applying it to the entire country.)
To no one’s shock, White House officials have allegedly taken this racism further, according to a reporter tasked with covering this administration:
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
In a press conference on Wednesday, the president explicitly defended his use of the term “Chinese virus” and declined to condemn the alleged use of the term “Kung-Flu.”
ABC News reporter Cecilia Vega cited incidents of bias and violence against Asian Americans in this time of heightened fear, and asked the president why he’s persisted in calling the coronavirus by a name “a lot of people say is racist” when members of his own cabinet have spoken out against the behavior.
Trump responded, “It’s not racist at all, no not at all. It comes from China, that’s why.” Trump then floated an odd explanation that China had, perhaps, tried to blame the outbreak of the virus on American soldiers, and that he was trying to set the record straight.
Q: "Why do you keep calling this the Chinese Virus?"
President Trump: "It comes from China…it's not racist."
— CSPAN (@cspan) March 18, 2020
Later in the press conference PBS Newshour reporter Yamiche Alcindor asked Trump about the alleged use of the term Kung-Flu. Trump did not speak against it, and instead doubled down on his description of the virus, saying “It comes from China.”
Reporter: "A person at the White House used the term Kung Flu… And do you think using the term Chinese virus puts Asian Americans at risk?"
President Trump: "No, not at all. I think they probably would agree with it 100%. It comes from China. There's nothing not to agree." pic.twitter.com/4zAfws2pvf
— The Hill (@thehill) March 18, 2020
Trump is setting the tone for other Republican leaders. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) defended the use of the “Chinese virus,” calling China to blame for the pandemic because of unusual foods eaten there. (Underscoring the stupidity of this kind of scapegoating, Cornyn mistakenly blamed China for MERS, which originated in Saudi Arabia and stands for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome.)
Sen. John Cornyn: "China is to blame because the culture where people eat bats & snakes & dogs & things like that, these viruses are transmitted from the animal to the people and that's why China has been the source of a lot of these viruses like SARS, like MERS, the Swine Flu." pic.twitter.com/N4TIlGFqAL
— The Hill (@thehill) March 18, 2020
This is a combustible moment. The economy is in free fall. The American public is on lockdown. Instead of providing leadership, imploring us each to look out for one another, the president is trying to cover for his own failings by stoking racism. He’s playing with fire.
[As a corrective to the president’s incitement, please read the CDC’s guidance on reducing stigma in relation to the coronavirus which reads in part: “It is important to remember that people – including those of Asian descent – who do not live in or have not recently been in an area of ongoing spread of the virus… are not at greater risk of spreading COVID-19 than other Americans.”]