The standard argument I keep hearing is that “Chinese virus” is totally nothing to do with racism, it’s just a description, like the “Spanish” flu. And I’m sure some people using the term aren’t using it as anything but a description, so they assume it’s harmless.
It isn’t. For Trump’s administration and a lot of his acolytes in the media, it’s deliberate racism. And when people echo their terminology, we further their agenda.
This is not a new issue. WHO said back in 2015 that sticking geographic names on disease is bad as it can stigmatize races or nationalities, something we’re currently seeing Chinese-Americans dealing with. Even something like “swine flu” can leave people thinking they should avoid eating pork or killing their livestock, causing more economic problems.
And the names aren’t as descriptive as we think. According to John Barry in The Great Influenz, “Spanish Flu” probably began in the U.S. It got its name because most of the countries with initial cases were under wartime censorship. Spain wasn’t censoring the media as much so the first news reports of Horrible New Disease! came from Spain, ergo Spanish Flu.
Or consider syphilis: “The inhabitants of today’s Italy, Germany and United Kingdom named syphilis ‘the French disease’, the French named it ‘the Neapolitan disease’, the Russians assigned the name of ‘Polish disease’, the Polish called it ‘the German disease’, The Danish, the Portuguese and the inhabitants of Northern Africa named it ‘the Spanish/Castilian disease’ and the Turks coined the term ‘Christian disease’. Moreover, in Northern India, the Muslims blamed the Hindu for the outbreak of the affliction. However, the Hindu blamed the Muslims and in the end everyone blamed the Europeans.”
Possibly “Chinese flu” is a totally rational choice of name, untainted by a desire to shift blame or racist considerations …nah.
The arguments that OMG it could maybe possibly conceivably have come from a Chinese bioweapon lab! are also in a tradition of racist/nationalist arguments. When the Spanish flu hit, there were stories it was a German bioweapon; there were also rumors tubercular Germans were sneaking off submarines and into New York crowds and infecting people. And of course, racists have long invoked warnings that Those Minorities are disease-bearing subhuman filth. The Bigot in Chief has made this argument himself about Mexicans.
Scientists say in the case of COVID-19, it’s a product of nature. If it was a bioweapon it could just as easily be a Russian attack on China, or a U.S. attack that got out of control, or hey, Alpha Centauri trying to destroy humanity before they colonize Earth. One wild-ass baseless guess is as good as another.
Calling it the Chinese virus serves multiple purposes for the gutless man-baby in the Oval Office, currently sniveling that it’s unfair he’s actually being held responsible for his failures. Most presidents would worry, like Trump, about how a pandemic would affect their re-election chances, but they’d realize the best solution is to fix the problem. Trump’s only real concern is protecting his brand by lying or shifting the blame.
“Chinese virus” feeds red meat to the part of his base that’s happy to hate foreigners, particularly nonwhite ones. Anti-Asian bigotry hasn’t been as prominent in recent years as hating Hispanics, but dormant doesn’t mean gone. Stories of Chinese Americans being spat on, insulted and blamed for the virus remind me a lot of the late 1980s when Japan was suddenly our economic superior and some Americans had shit fits (it was Pearl Harbor all over again, a deliberate attack on America by the fiendishly cunning Oriental devils!).
It allows President Man-Baby to pretend it’s not his fault. He’d like us to ignore his manifest self-serving incompetence over the past two months and blame China instead. A recurring argument on Twitter and FB is that Trump closed the borders, ergo he flattened the curve! How dare people say he’s a bigot instead of a savior?
Well, because his border closings have always been about bigotry, though mostly against Muslims. And we’ve had multiple accounts of patients not getting quarantined as they returned from overseas, and Trump’s initial decision not to stop travel from the UK when he restricted travel from Europe (UK has a Trump resort). But the worst of the Republican base wants to believe Trump is infallible and awesome so being told it’s the damn foreigners who are really responsible and the Shit-Gibbon saved us will make them happy.
Now consider Fox host Tucker Carlson’s argument: “The Chinese coronavirus really is Chinese. It arose in that country for the same reason American businesses have sent so many of our jobs there – lack of health and safety standards and endemic corruption. China did this to the world and we should not pretend otherwise. That’s not xenophobia. It’s true. The most bitter irony of all of this is that a few years from now, when every last victim of this virus has recovered or been buried, the Chinese government can easily grow stronger because of this disaster. And America can grow weaker.”
Note the phrasing that China “did this to the world” — despite the Chinese government’s appalling handling of the problem, that’s pretty loaded. Not to mention phrasing it in Clash of Civilization terms — China’s growing stronger, we’re growing weaker! And they Did It To Us.
Keep in mind, Trump is the incarnation of endemic corruption. His administration is weakening all sorts of health and safety standards. And we could easily argue that Trump did this to the country. But Trump’s a rich white supremacist right-wing white man so Carlson applies different rules.
And finally, there’s the fact that people all over America have decided if it’s the “Chinese virus” then Chinese Americans must be at fault. Never mind whether they’ve ever lived in China or traveled there or have any emotional connection to the country, it’s their fault! They deserve to be assaulted, insulted condemned and despised (see the link earlier). And if there are no Chinese in Kansas, Kansas must be safe.
A lot of the vectors in this country will be white simply because we have so many white people in this country. But the people who shriek and curse at Chinese Americans (or ordinary Chinese who happen to be over here) would be outraged if anyone started treating all white people as if they were collectively guilty (heck, a lot of Trump voters whinge at being held responsible for putting him in office). White people are entitled to be judged individually; non-whites get collective guilt.
So yeah, calling it Chinese flu is harmful and it’s racist. Q.E.D.