Sunday, October 25, 2020

Yes, calling it 'the Chinese virus' is racist and you don't have to be polite about it


There are still people who defend a gleeful propensity for referring to SARS-CoV-2 as "the China virus," emulating language frequently used by President Donald Trump. 

The defense of this language is that in the past, scientists have used geographical location as a reference in naming viruses, as with the Spanish flu, Ebola, Lyme disease, and other examples. 

They tend not to mention the fact that the World Health Organization issued guidance in 2015 to avoid naming infectious diseases for places where people live. 

The assistant director-general for health security at the time, Keiji Fukuda, stated that "the use of names such as 'swine flu' and 'Middle East Respiratory Syndrome' has had unintended negative impacts by stigmatizing certain communities or economic sectors. This may seem like a trivial issue to some, but disease names really do matter to the people who are directly affected. We've seen certain disease names provoke a backlash against members of particular religious or ethnic communities, create unjustified barriers to travel, commerce and trade, and trigger needless slaughtering of food animals. This can have serious consequences for people's lives and livelihoods." 

The scientists who identified the virus EBOV in 1976 initially thought to name the virus after a village, but even then they considered the danger of stigmatizing people who lived there, as had happened with past infectious diseases. Instead, as Live Science reported, they decided to name it for a nearby river: Ebola. 

There is inequity even in the stigmatization. Most people are likely unaware that Lyme disease is named for a town in Connecticut, and the name has certainly not led to harassment and assault upon people from that state. It is not colloquially known as "the Connecticut bacterium." 

There is no equivalence between this and the labeling of SARS-CoV-2 as "the China virus" and similar epithets.

"In the months since the coronavirus pandemic began, thousands of Asians in the U.S. have become targets of harassment and assault," National Geographic reported. "The racist incidents began as the first cases of coronavirus spread across China last December and disinformation reigned. As infections appeared in the U.S., President Trump repeatedly referred to COVID-19 as the 'China virus' and 'Chinese flu,' and pushed a disproved theory that it had originated in a Chinese lab. By April an IPSOS poll found that three in 10 Americans blamed China or Chinese people for the virus." 

Today, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows stated in a television interview that the administration's strategy was to "defeat" the novel coronavirus "because we're Americans." This inane nationalism treats COVID-19 like a proxy war waged against the U.S. by China. 

Viruses do not have ethnic identity, and neither do antibodies. Yet people of Asian descent have been harassed and assaulted in the United States for months because of the willful association of COVID-19 with ethnicity. 

Those who cite the "Spanish flu" and "German measles" and Lyme disease with amused innocence are being disingenuous and denying ongoing harm to people by the use of such language. 

When they insist that it is necessary to assign Chinese identity to the coronavirus, they should be accountable for their reasons. They should be asked whether the use of that sobriquet illuminates anything about the disease, how it spreads and what it does to human bodies. They should be asked, by their friends and colleagues, to explain what the value of that language is compared to stigmatizing and harming human beings who bear no culpability for an epidemiological crisis. 

And we should not pretend that harassment is not the apparent intent behind the insistent use of racial slurs to identify the virus.

The objection "BuT iT cAmE fRoM cHiNa" does not have to be taken in good faith in a discussion because it willfully ignores history, documented instances of ethnic stigmatization and harm to human beings. 

The expression is racist in sentiment and effect, and merits the scorn of a humane society. 

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This blog has been largely inactive for a long time as I have a busy life writing news and columns every day for the Las Cruces Sun-News.

This originated as a Twitter thread. I also occasionally express myself on Facebook, which is sadly phasing out its "Notes" feature that resembled a blog and served nicely for longer efforts at self-expression. 

And I continue to write the Desert Sage column for the Sun-News, which no longer appears in the Deming Headlight but in the Sunday edition of the Las Cruces paper. 

In today's edition and online, Desert Sage calls for unseating the Commission on Presidential Debates's monopoly control over presidential arguments, arguing that its bipartisanship is the problem, not a virtue. Click here if you'd like to give that a read.