In the midst of a global epidemic, the United States is mired in a discussion of whether or not it is racist to refer to the novel coronavirus outbreak that started in Wuhan, China as “Chinese.” Many in the Democratic Party and mainstream media have alleged that the repeated insistence of President Trump and other Republicans of adding “Chinese” or “Wuhan” as a qualifier to coronavirus reflects some naked racial animus.
Setting aside for a moment the absurdity of whether it is offensive to describe a viral outbreak based on where it started, such allegations also fundamentally misunderstand this conversation came to be in the first place.
From perusing the headlines, one would likely walk away assuming the world had come to a decision to refer to the novel coronavirus outbreak one way, and then President Trump and his allies decided it was politically expedient to change that name to reiterate that the outbreak came from China. This is the opposite of the truth.
As I’ve explained, mainstream media outlets have been describing the outbreak as “Chinese” or “Wuhan” coronavirus dating back to December. This is unsurprising; from Spanish Flu to Ebola, contagions are often associated with the place they are believed to have originated. This makes intuitive sense in a large and interconnected world, particularly within a 24/7 news environment.
Then, in recent months, the World Health Organization (WHO), that austere organization who has feted the Chinese government at every stage of the outbreak, interjected to say that they’d stopped referring to pandemics based on their location of origin in 2015. The media – who, apparently, hadn’t been paying close attention – changed their tune and decided that anyone who didn’t instantly follow their about-face was racist. Republicans refused to back down and Democrats and the mainstream media, rather than move on from or ignore the esoteric calculation that the WHO uses to name a disease, held on to the racism argument like a dog with a bone.
For good measure, the Chinese Communist Party added fuel to the fire, no doubt to further distance themselves from a virus they helped loose on the world. Since then, the media has spent countless words and press conference questions aghast that the President has continued to use the same vernacular they were using just a few short weeks ago. The President, citing China’s culpability, has continued to call the disease “China virus,” and the media has accused him of weaponizing a term they coined, rather than focus on a plague sweeping the globe.
While obviously less significant than a public health response to the virus, the way we talk about the outbreak matters. More and more stories continue to unearth the systemic failures of the Chinese government in controlling the virus and build a compelling case that China was, at best, wantonly negligent in their response. At worst, reports suggest that they took deliberate measures to ensure it wouldn’t be contained.
In response, the Chinese government has insisted, without evidence, that it was the United States that created the virus, as part of a broader, global PR campaign to paint themselves as the good guys. Western media outlets – including NBC, The New York Times, The Intercept, and more – have inconceivably given voice to Chinese propaganda about the sterling success of China’s efforts to altruistically contain the disease.
It’s worth being cognizant of the second- and third-order consequences of the nomenclature we use to describe the outbreak and not overlook reports of racism and xenophobia at home and abroad. It’s also critical to separate the actions of an authoritarian regime from the everyday people who live under its thumb. Conflating the two or excusing awful acts of hatred and bigotry are unacceptable.
But it’s also worth standing our ground in response to a disinformation campaign from a geopolitical rival and speaking candidly about how we got here. The simple, inarguable truth is that the Chinese government has blood on their hands for the coronavirus outbreak sweeping the globe, and free people everywhere would do well to reject efforts to obfuscate this reality to score cheap political points.
Drew Holden is a public affairs consultant in Washington, D.C. and a former Republican congressional staffer in the U.S. House of Representatives