Coronavirus isn't a 'Chinese virus' no matter what Trump says

Commentary: Words matter, which is why a label that stigmatizes people isn't appropriate.

Roger Cheng Former Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
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Roger Cheng
5 min read

US President Donald Trump continues to use a term that's harmful and divisive. 

James Martin/CNET

The rapid advance of the coronavirus pandemic into our lives has brought new phrases into our lexicon, from "flatten the curve" to "social distancing." But one in particular has grabbed a lot of headlines over the last several days: "Chinese virus."

In a tweet on March 16 promising US support to industries affected by the pandemic, President Donald Trump referred to the coronavirus as "the Chinese virus," prompting backlash on social media from medical and government officials, including New York Mayor Bill di Blasio. During a press conference two days later, Trump defended the term, and he continues to use it. 

"Because it comes from China," Trump said. "It's not racist at all. It comes from China; that's why. I want to be accurate." 

Trump's statement, however, contradicts guidance from the World Health Organization and the US' own Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

" Viruses know no borders," said Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO's Emergencies program, during a conference on Tuesday. He stressed the need to be "careful" when describing the coronavirus. 

The same day, during a House hearing, CDC Director Robert Redfield agreed with Florida Rep. Lois Frankel's assessment that using the term was "absolutely wrong."  

(On Monday, President Trump tweeted the need to protect Asian Americans and referred to the coronavirus as "the Virus.")

CNET has a policy on how we treat the label, as well as terms like "foreign virus." Our reporters and editors avoid using these terms unless we're directly quoting someone -- and in those circumstances, we'll include additional context explaining why the term is inaccurate and how it misrepresents the global nature of this pandemic. I tweeted about our policy here

The responses were what you'd imagine they'd be on Twitter: a mix of support and criticism. (On Twitter, there's rarely ever middle ground.)

The negative responses (which question why it's wrong to label a virus by its place of origin) as well as Trump's defense of the label, underscore why I think, as executive editor and head of CNET News, and as a Chinese American, that it's important for us to discuss the societal and factual harm that come from the use of "Chinese virus." 

The coronavirus has upended the world and the way we live, and the CDC and WHO, accustomed to dealing with health crises of all kinds, are asking government, media and other organizations to accurately label the coronavirus, which causes the disease known as COVID-19. The use of "Chinese virus" deflects from the pandemic's global nature and isn't used by professionals who are actually in the know. 

The counterargument Trump and many of his supporters make is that we've historically named viruses after locations. There's the Spanish flu and the Ebola and Zika viruses. So why the fuss now?

Let's take the Spanish flu, which many cite as an example of a virus being named after its place of origin. In reality, it got its name because Spain during World War I was the first to report that its citizens were dying from the flu, and other countries feared it might hamper their fundraising efforts for the war. The Spanish called it the French flu, and some researchers believe it may have originated in Kansas

Also, things have changed. We're a lot more aware of the consequences of being cavalier with our words. In 2015, the WHO established best practices for naming new infectious diseases. The guidelines address the fact that these previous labels carried negative effects on certain populations. (Here's the WHO guide on dealing with social stigma.) 

But beyond the facts, using the term involves a societal impact that responsible news, government and other organizations need to weigh. Just because we've done something in the past doesn't mean it's still right to do it now. For instance, how many people do you see smoking indoors or throwing trash on the ground? Good luck trying to call someone a "Chinaman" without eliciting a reaction. 

Though the president shrugs off a connection between the term and violence against Asians, there's no denying a rise in reported incidents around the world. CNN detailed a number of these hate crimes in the US last month. The reports keep coming in. 

This has hit close to home -- just this month, my son's Asian American classmate and his mother were verbally assaulted in front of a store. Fearful of more, she hid her son in a side alley as he asked, "Why was she angry? Did she not like my toy?" Shocked? Similar incidents have been reported by friends in my Facebook feed. 

That's why the Asian American Journalists Association has expressed concerns about terms like "Wuhan virus" and "Chinese coronavirus."

"The AAJA is urging journalists to exercise care in their coverage of the coronavirus outbreak in China to ensure accurate and fair portrayals of Asians and Asian Americans and to avoid fueling xenophobia and racism that have already emerged since the outbreak," the group says.

When actor Daniel Dae Kim, best known for starring in Lost and Hawaii Five-0posted on Instagram that he was diagnosed with COVID-19, he made a plea to end violence against Asian Americans and denounced the idea of linking location to the disease. 

"I don't consider the place where it's from as important as the people who are sick or dying," he said. 

What's important is how we describe the virus, because its impact is very real. And to be clear -- and I can't believe I have to stress this -- Asians aren't more likely to spread COVID-19 just because they're Asian. This is according to the CDC

The debate over whether governments, the media and other organizations should use this term should be secondary to our efforts to fight the spread of COVID-19 and to spur development of a vaccine. This whole affair is a sideshow to our bigger problems, and it's easy to wash one's hands of it. I'd much rather spend my time helping map out our core coronavirus coverage, like how to cope with social distancing than debate the value of two words. 

But we can't ignore this issue. Doing so could perpetuate even further violence against Asians, both in the US and abroad. 

And because some will continue to ask the question, "Why the fuss?" 

The more appropriate question to ask is, "When we have better, more accurate ways to describe it, why choose a label that will needlessly jeopardize and ostracize people, including our fellow Americans?"

Using a term that stigmatizes people isn't useful. The world needs more cooperation and communication to fight this pandemic. Dividing us is only going to exacerbate the problem. 

"We need solidarity," the WHO's Ryan said. "We need to work together." 

"Solidarity." "Together." These are words we all need in our lexicon right now. 

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