“Having a name matters to prevent the use of other names that can be inaccurate or stigmatizing,” said WHO director-general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “It also gives us a standard format to use for any future coronavirus outbreaks.” In 2015, in issuing guidelines on naming new diseases and pathogens, WHO said that names matter; inaccurate or biased names can provoke backlashes against religious and ethnic groups, with serious consequences for peoples’ lives and livelihoods.”
This is about the proliferation of such names for the coronavirus as “the Chinese virus” and “the Wuhan virus,” loudly proclaimed by officials in the Federal government and segments of the media.
Among others, Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) expressed the deep concern of “our leaders actually stoking the flames and encouraging people to scapegoat.” She added, “The only result that can happen from … xenophobic rhetoric is to hurt people and to scapegoat a particular ethnic group in this country.
Chinese virus… Wuhan virus… These terms deliberately target Chinese people and other Asians who “look Chinese.” It’s racism. It’s bigotry. This is not open to question. “The coronavirus is not an excuse to be racist,” said Samantha Bee, the comedian. “Tying coronavirus to China and Chinese people isn’t just a racist dog whistle, it’s a whole racist orchestra.”
See or Hear Racism? Speak Up!
The Southern Poverty Law Center urges people to speak up. The organization’s Teaching Tolerance project recommends a four-step model:
- Interrupt the conversation. Express that you need to talk about racism before proceeding.
- Question the person and remark. “Why did you call it the Chinese virus” or “What made you say that?”
- Educate the speaker. Tell them that the name COVID-19 was chosen carefully to avoid associating the pathogen with a specific group of people.
- Echo when someone else speaks up. Acknowledge and amplify the message that these terms are wrong and hurtful. The Ohio State University Kirwan Institute offers online training on being an active bystander.
It’s real. Racist attacks against people of Chinese ancestry and other southeast Asians have been reported around the world. “Not only do we need to be afraid of our health, now we also have to be afraid to be ourselves,” said one Chinese-American teenager. “Coronavirus infected my high school.” A young woman was yelled at, threatened, and spat on by. The same New York Times article cited many others, including other Asian-Americans, “who with families from Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, Myanmar, and other places — are facing threats, too, lumped together with Chinese-Americans by a bigotry that does not know the difference.” A Huffpost article echoes this news and urges bystanders to speak up.
This issue also affects political leadership around the world. Representatives from the Group of Seven nations met last Wednesday to discuss the coronavirus pandemic, but they couldn’t agree on a joint statement to release to the public afterwards. Why? Because U.S. Secretary of State insisted on calling COVID-19 the “Wuhan virus.”
“Disease and prejudice have long gone hand in hand,” said the New York Times editorial board. “We can do better in 2020.”