What's the purpose of the phrase 'Chinese virus'?

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Mike Bebernes
·Senior Editor
·5 min read
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“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

In the past few days, President Trump and some of his fellow conservatives have changed the way they refer to the virus that has caused nearly 10,000 deaths around the world. For more than two months, Trump used the word “coronavirus.” On Monday, he began calling it the “Chinese virus” on Twitter and in public briefings. Other GOP lawmakers and conservative media figures have pivoted their language as well, with some preferring “Wuhan virus,” referring to the area of China where the outbreak originated.

The change in word choice has raised accusations of racism. Trump defended himself Wednesday, saying, “It comes from China. I want to be accurate.” The White House accused the president’s critics of “fake media outrage.”

Trump is correct that the virus is believed to come from China. But using the phrase goes against modern best practices to avoid location-based names for infectious diseases. Not only are they often inaccurate — Spanish flu started in Kansas and Ebola was chosen by scientists using an incorrect map — but they can also stigmatize people from the region the virus is named after. “It’s really important we be careful in the language we use lest it lead to the profiling of individuals associated with the virus,” a World Health Organization official said.

There have been numerous reports of racism against Asians in the U.S. and abroad, including hate crimes, as the outbreak has escalated. Health experts say this prejudice could hinder efforts to combat the pandemic.

Why there’s debate

Trump and his allies argue that the term “Chinese virus” is necessary to ensure that China’s government is held accountable for the missteps it took in the early stages of the outbreak that allowed the virus to spread to other parts of the world. The president’s critics say he’s looking to redirect blame for the impact the virus is having in the U.S. amid accusations that the administration has mismanaged the crisis and put American lives at risk.

Others say the vocabulary shift is an attempt to change the debate to one about the president’s language choice rather than his performance. Trump has faced regular allegations of racism since referring to Mexican immigrants as “rapists” in the first address of his presidential campaign. Combating those accusations — and using them as an opportunity to rail against politically correct culture — is something the president and his supporters have ample practice at, and may even see a political advantage in.

Some historians say the phrase “Chinese virus” is part of a long history of blaming foreigners, particularly Asians, for epidemics.


It’s an attempt to distract from mismanagement of the crisis

“The White House [would] clearly rather have a National Conversation about political correctness run amok than talk about the shocking and continuing malfeasance of the WH’s response that will result in unnecessary deaths.” — MSNBC host Chris Hayes

It’s important to be truthful about where the virus started

“While some here say that’s a racist term, it’s actually just an accurate term of where it started, and them not being transparent about how it started really hurt literally the rest of the planet.” — Brian Kilmeade, Fox News

Trump and his allies are more comfortable in debates about rhetoric

“Controversies like these are a perfect example of what Steve Bannon, Trump’s former campaign manager, called ‘flooding the zone with sh*t’ — distracting us from what matters with copious flushes of what doesn’t. And raw sewage is this president’s natural habitat, the medium in which he fights most effectively. His opponents are willingly lured into the sewers.” — Graeme Wood, Atlantic

It’s fair to blame the Chinese government, but not to stigmatize the country’s citizens

“If the present instances are unfair to the Chinese people, who have suffered massively from the outbreak, a better name would be ‘Xi’s disease.’” — Editorial, National Review

Trump sees political advantage in ‘culture war’ debates

“There is no word in the world more recognizable right now than ‘coronavirus.’ From his infamous ‘both sides’ remarks about a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., to his labeling of Haiti and African nations as ‘sh*thole countries’ to referring to Mexicans as ‘rapists’ and ‘drug dealers,’ Trump’s frequent displays of racism are deliberate.” — Kurt Bardella, NBC News

It provides a chance to make the left look excessively PC

“Do I think he should be calling it the Chinese virus? No. But I think it’s a losing argument for the left to make because I think the vast majority of Americans are going to say, ‘Who cares?’” — Dan Abrams, The View

The virus offers an opportunity to needle Trump’s biggest geopolitical rival

“China is a regular punching bag for a president who lays blame for all sorts of global ills at China’s door; he has already sparked a trade war with China, plunging any semblance of bilateralism to historic lows. Countless Republicans seem to see the coronavirus — uh, Wuhan virus — as another Team Trump layup that they’re not gonna miss.” — Daniel King, Mother Jones

Fear of disease has always been tied to fear of foreigners

“The language of disease has always been linked to our discourse around immigration. I think it’s pretty clear that our fears about immigrants and outsiders have always been bolstered by fears about disease and contamination.” — Historian Natalia Molin to Vox

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images