Back in December when coronavirus was mostly present inside China, I remember a meme circulating in social media. It purported to separate facts and myths about the virus. It downplayed the fears about the virus and claimed “racism is more dangerous than any virus.” The virus had yet to become a global pandemic and there were some alleged harassment against Asians living in the US or Europe, so some people on social media took this opportunity to virtue-signal about their ‘anti-racist’ work rather than taking the virus seriously. Now that COVID-19 has virtually destroyed all normalcy of life in much of the world, one would think they have changed their minds.
But this has not been the case. Over the last couple weeks, there has been a continuous conversation in the media about whether calling the coronavirus ‘Wuhan virus’ or ‘China virus’ is racist. Yesterday, President Trump was asked this question and whether he and his administration would stop using the term. Republican Representative Kevin McCarthy was demanded to apologize for writing “Chinese coronavirus” in his tweet. Speaker Nancy Pelosi chastised him for blaming “Asians and Asian American community,” and Senator Kamala Harris said that he “incites discrimination against Asian Americans and Asian immigrants.” The New York Times published an opinion piece titled “I’m Chinese. That doesn’t mean I have Coronavirus,” stating the obvious. Vox claimed that the lack of racial diversity in pictures of people with face masks in the media is an evidence of anti-Asian racism. Other publications such as Times of India, The Nation, and The Atlantic also ran articles warning the readers not to be racist. Despite this moral panic about coronavirus-inspired racism, it has been the virus that killed thousands of people, not racists. There has been zero mass riots or pogroms against Asians. However, that is not my main point. Of course, we should not be racist against all Asians. But labeling the term ‘Wuhan virus’ as racist does more harm to Asian people than good.
First of all, referring to a virus by its outbreak location is not racist. It is a standard practice that was used to name African swine fever virus, West Nile virus, and Spanish flu. When the virus had not yet reached the West and did not have the official name of COVID-19, a number of Asian countries (including South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong) was calling the virus ‘Wuhan virus’ or ‘Wuhan pneumonia.’ It is absurd to suggest that they were using the term to “blame all Asians” or to nudge people to discriminate Asians. In addition, coronavirus is a generic term for a number of RNA virus that causes respiratory disease. 2003 SARS and 2012 MERS was both caused by a type of coronavirus. The current virus has to be distinguished from the previous ones, and one way to do so is to call it by its location, like MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome). Does anybody think that MERS was coined to “blame all Middle Easterners?”
Furthermore, the location is relevant to the cause and the spread of the virus. Unlike the Spanish flu, which did not originate in Spain and was unrelated to Spanish culture, Wuhan virus is directly linked to the Chinese dietary customs, sanitary conditions, and governance. This disease did not start in China by coincidence. It is almost certain that the virus came from bats and that it first spread in Wuhan seafood market, where exotic wild animals are often sold for consumption. Criticizing an aspect of Chinese culture that many Chinese people also do not approve of should not be labelled as “racist.” In order to come out stronger from this pandemic, we need to face the truth and deal with it, however difficult it may be. In fact, the current coronavirus occurred because China did not learn the lesson of SARS epidemic and continued to allow consumption of wild animals. If this does not change, there will be another coronavirus in the future and will cost many Chinese people’s lives. The world population will be at higher risk than this time, since the world will be even more globalized and connected. The global spread of the virus can also be faulted on the initial reaction of the Chinese government to the outbreak. It covered up the truth and intimidated doctors who tried to warn the world, which delayed the proper containment of the virus and allowed patients to travel internationally. China must be held accountable for this behavior, not applauded for treating the virus belatedly and sending aids to other countries when it is too late.
Second, erasing the connection between the pandemic and China is harmful for everyone, including billions of Chinese citizens who suffer under the communist regime. It does the bidding for the Chinese propaganda machine which is currently attempting to deny that the virus came from Wuhan and creating a conspiracy theory that the United States planted the virus in Wuhan. The Chinese government clearly has not learned the lesson of this epidemic and it will continue to persecute Chinese journalists and doctors who are trying to speak truthfully about the matter. The western media should be on their side, not the Chinese government’s. The Chinese Communist Party can maintain the totalitarian control over its population because it projects a veneer of competency and this crisis threatened their legitimacy. The Western media should not help the CCP extend its iron-fist rule over its people.
Helping China deflect blame will increase the likelihood of a future pandemic, because China will have less incentive to carry out the necessary reforms to prevent such catastrophe. I am not suggesting that China will intentionally spread a virus, but if this pandemic ends up helping China increase its global status while destroying its competitors’ economy, China won’t be as desperate to prevent another disease. It needs to know that it will pay a price if it does not change its behavior.
Surely, there will be people who overemphasize the “Chinese” aspect of the virus for maleficent aims, perhaps to justify the prejudice they had about Chinese people prior to the crisis. I am East Asian and indistinguishable from Chinese in many people’s eyes. It would be certainly unpleasant to treated as a virus just because I am East Asian and I do not condone treating all Chinese people as virus. The virus has nothing to do with the Chinese ethnicity, especially with Chinese people who have been living outside China. However, few bigots exploiting the term should not tempt the rest of us to deny the facts and curb the reality in favor of the CCP.
I believe that many who object to the term ‘Wuhan virus’ is doing so out of the concern for the well-being of Asians. They may think that they are fighting racism on their behalf. But they are mistaken. If you truly care about the health of billions of Asians, you should not spend your energy policing words and fighting microaggression. That is not what most Asians have on their minds right now. You should instead help create an environment in which the Chinese government is held accountable internationally and forced to take action to prevent the next pandemic. That’s real activism. There are brave Chinese people who sacrificed their lives trying to correct what is going wrong in their country, and the CCP silenced them. Do not help the CCP silence more people.