Current Affairs

Notes on a Nightmare #5: The “Chinese Virus”

Bill Maher is wrong that it’s an innocuous geographical descriptor.

In the early days of the coronavirus, President Trump insisted on calling it the “Chinese virus,” at one point even crossing out the word “corona” in his briefing notes and replacing it with “Chinese.” The State Department even pressured G-7 countries to call it the “Wuhan virus,” though these countries were reluctant to do so. Public health authorities have generally just called it “coronavirus” or, more specifically “Covid-19.” But while Trump has now said he will stop using the term “Chinese virus” in an effort to ease tensions with China—and perhaps because press accounts of attacks against Asian Americans across the country made it clear how dangerous and stupid it was to say the virus is “Chinese”—some conservatives get very angry at being told that the term is “racist and anti-Chinese.” They repeat Trump’s own justification: “It is not racist at all. [The virus] comes from China, that’s why.” 

I had thought the whole “Chinese virus” flap was dying down, but Bill Maher recently decided to revive it and at least one poll has suggested most people have no problem with Trump using the term. And because those using the term think it’s so obvious that it’s fine, and that those criticizing it are just PC snowflakes who can’t handle facts, it’s worth trying to spell out exactly what’s wrong with “Chinese virus.”

The basic case against the phrase is simple, which is that viruses do not have nationalities and that adding the word “Chinese” does not add any illuminating piece of information. It is true that the virus originated in China. But why is this fact about it so important as to be mentioned every time the virus is mentioned? Names are a choice; we can pick the name that we think best captures what it is we want to say about something. We could call it the “fish market virus” because it is thought to have come from a fish market, but that isn’t thought to convey anything helpful. Coronavirus tells us the particular type of virus it is, Covid-19 is even more precise, but why do conservatives think country of origin is so important that they want to make sure everyone repeats it? 

When people criticize the use of “Chinese virus,” the response given by the right is that they are simply stating facts. National Review writer Kyle Smith says it is not racist to “point out that the virus originated in Wuhan, China” and that “truth is an absolute defense” to charges of racism. Thus, if the virus originated in Wuhan, it’s a “Wuhan virus.” Case closed. Facts don’t care about your feelings.

But, as is often the case with conservative invocations of “Reason” and “Logic,” what looks like “simple logic” is in fact just simplistic logic that declines to do any thinking. For saying “the virus originated in Wuhan” is not the issue. That is indeed not racist, and is a factual statement. As usual, however, conservatives caricature their “social justice warrior” opponents in order to avoid engaging the actual arguments being made. Just as “there are more than two genders” is caricatured as the statement “chromosomes do not exist,” “you should not colloquially refer to it as ‘the Chinese virus’” becomes “you’re not allowed to say where the virus originated or you’re a racist.” 

The serious argument here is that nothing especially useful is gained from calling it the “Chinese” or “Wuhan” virus (not including country of origin in the name doesn’t mean we can’t say where it originated), but that there is a compelling reason not to do it, namely the fact that it risks making the public mentally associate a deadly virus with Chinese people, creating a nasty stigma. There are plenty of reports of Asian Americans being harassed and told that “you people” brought us the virus. A person even told me at one point not to get too close to any Chinese people. Cathy Park Hong documents numerous instances of Asian people being blamed for and even attacked during the pandemic, and explains coronavirus is reviving anti-Asian prejudice. “Take your Chinese virus back to China,” one family in Minnesota was told. Just as incessant talk about “Islamic” terrorism means that life becomes harder for ordinary Muslims, talk about an Asian virus makes life hell for Asian people. Why not just avoid a term that can produce these consequences?

Now, here’s where you’ll run into the counterargument offered by the likes of Bill Maher. Maher says that many other viruses have been referred to by geographic origins. Exasperated, he listed a bunch of them to show that the Easily Offended Types are inconsistent: For some reason, they don’t care that Lyme disease is named after Old Lyme, Connecticut, but they think people who say “Wuhan virus” are racist: 

“Scientists, who are generally pretty liberal, have been naming diseases after the places they came from for a very long time. Zika is from the Zika Forest. Ebola from the Ebola River. Hantavirus, the Hantan River. There’s the West Nile Virus and Guinea worm and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and of course the Spanish flu. MERS stands for Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome. It’s plastered all over airports and no one blogs about it. So, why should China get a pass? Congressman Ted Lieu tweeted, ‘The virus is not constrained by country or race. Be just as stupid to call it the Milan Virus.’ No, that would be way stupider because it didn’t come from Milan. And if it did, I guarantee we’d be calling it the Milan Virus. Jesus f—ing Christ. Can’t we even have a pandemic without getting offended? When they named Lyme disease after a town in Connecticut the locals didn’t get all ticked off.”

Now, I think the first instinct of many people who know things is to respond that Spanish flu is not in fact from Spain, and argue that in fact, these origin claims can be misleading. But plenty of them are roughly accurate in categorizing diseases according to where they first appeared. So is a fuss being made over nothing, suddenly seeing something nefarious in a fairly typical naming convention? My own first instinct when I heard the terms “Chinese virus” and “Wuhan virus” was to cringe. “Racist” wasn’t the first word that popped into my head; rather they just generated a general discomfort, a feeling that a label like that was somehow gross and wrong. Maher tells me I need to just kill the SJW in my head and stop being so easily offended. Is he right?

No, he is not. The key point that Maher misses, one that “anti-PC” types often miss, is that the world is a complicated place, and context may make two things that seem logically similar to be quite different. So, for example, why is it different when a white person uses a racial slur against a Black person than when a Black person uses a racial slur against a white person? For many conservatives, there is no difference, and they do not understand why the left is more tolerant of “anti-white” racism and does not see Malcolm X and David Duke as equivalent. But there’s an easy answer to that, which is that in this country there has long been a racial hierarchy in which white people have far more wealth and power than Black people: The boardrooms are full of white people and the prisons are full of Black people. There is a long history of reinforcing this hierarchy through violent racial terrorism directed against Black people, who were kept in chains for hundreds of years. Racial slurs have been a key part of maintaining that dehumanizing social order and reinforcing the idea that Blacks were not actually people and did not deserve their full rights. Most people are at least vaguely aware of this, so saying “Well why isn’t ‘honky’ the same as the n-word?” involves a degree of playing dumb about the comparative effects of those words in the society we actually live in. 

So actually, there is a reason to see “Chinese virus” as something different from “Lyme disease,” and it’s partly because this country has a long history of white people being terrified that a Chinese “yellow peril” was coming for them. Ted Lieu is actually wrong to say that it would be equally stupid to say “Milan virus” and Bill Maher is correct that we probably would say “Milan virus.”. But this would be very different, in part because Milan is not a place that Americans are especially bigoted against, and there’s little risk that there would be bad social consequences from associating it with the virus. Now, if we were living back when Italians were discriminated against and seen as part of a dirty underclass, we would not want a group already stigmatized as dangerous to be attached to the name of a deadly virus. But times have changed.

Now, you might say we no longer live in the “yellow peril” days either. But many Americans still see Asian people as something mystifying and “other,” and in part thanks to president Trump, “the Chinese” are seen as a competitor and threat rather than people identical to ourselves. As an anarchist who does not believe in national borders, I personally don’t like anything that reinforces the myth that state boundaries should be overridingly important as part of people’s identities and that people living thousands of miles from Wuhan who have never even been there should be associated with the virus, or people in Wuhan who have never had anything to do with this virus should find themselves associated with it. If we were going to choose a geographic name, the most accurate might be the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market Virus, ideally with the exact name of the particular market stall it came from, but as I say, I think that is quite useless in addition to being absurd, and also implies something about the Huanan seafood market that might be extremely unfair. 

Here is an interesting fact about Ebola: It was actually identified not in the Ebola River, but at a village 60 miles from the river called Yambuku. The professor who identified it decided to name it after the river precisely because he didn’t want a stigma attached to Yambuku. A good thing, too: People from Yambuku probably would have forever been suspected of carrying the disease long after it had been stamped out there. Bill Maher may be right that the residents of Old Lyme have never been “ticked off” (har har) about their association with a disease, but I am sure one or two of them would have rather it be called the tick disease instead. Ticks don’t experience social stigma, although of course there may be other negative consequences that follow from encouraging people to make an association between a particular creature and an illness. The world is complicated and we must be thoughtful about how names create subconscious associations and how subconscious associations influence action.

I don’t tend to like to use the word “racist” because immediately people like Maher will reply that “Wuhan isn’t a race,” thinking this is highly insightful. Instead, the way I would respond to him is to say: but why? Why call it this? Won’t it encourage people to blame 1.3 billion Chinese people for a microscopic virus none of them created or wanted? (This seems to be the point a lot of the time, actually.) Won’t it exacerbate fear and distrust for no reason? Perhaps the fact that prior diseases have been named after places, rather than causing us to dismiss the potential consequences of saying “Chinese virus,” should lead us to reflect on whether the benefit of geographic identification outweighed the cost of creating stigma. Perhaps Ebola should not have been called Ebola, just as we might want to rethink calling certain aggressive bees “Africanized.” (But they came from Africa. So what?) I am skeptical of efforts to create a just world by hyper-focusing on the purging of problematic language, but when we have a choice between terms that may reinforce bad and misleading ideas (and even make it more likely for people to be violently attacked), and terms that are just as accurate but without the negatives, why not choose a better word?

So I’m very skeptical of those who cling to their “Wuhan” and “Chinese” virus, just as I’d be skeptical of someone who was very intent in 1918 on emphasizing the Spanish in “Spanish flu.” With even the president having drifted away from this icky habit, I am hopeful that it will go away. But our society is, regrettably, still saddled with the National Review and Bill Maher, and it is worth being able to explain to such people what to them is “just logic” is in fact “just being an asshole.”

More In: The Virus

Cover of latest issue of print magazine

Announcing Our Newest Issue


Our eclectic and verdant rainforest issue!

The Latest From Current Affairs