Photo illustration by Chelsea Wood

The “Chinese Virus” and the Social Disease

No one person is to blame when millions of people are at risk
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No one person is to blame when millions of people are at risk

A cultural perception of coronavirus has been under scrutiny for people’s repeated insistence on referring to it as “Chinese virus.” This became known when a photographer shared a photo they took of Donald Trump’s script at a press conference March 19, which showed the word “corona” crossed out and replaced with “Chinese” above it.

The World Health Organization has guidelines that diseases should not be named after geographical locations, partially in response to the consequences of disease names such as Spanish flu, Rift Valley fever or Singapore virus.

These guidelines were first announced in 2015, with the reasoning that there are numerous other ways to refer to the name of a disease easily without identifying a specific place. One example is the SARS virus, which “avoided stigmatizing any place or any person. And then because of the acronym SARS, it also gave the media and everybody an easy way to refer to the disease.”

Unfortunately, even outbreaks in recent years are given names such as Ebola, which is the name of a river in Congo, or swine flu, which indirectly blames an entire species of animal.

When we call illnesses Singapore virus, Chinese virus or swine flu, it shifts the focus away from combating the outbreak and toward the myth that some place or group of people must be at fault for a problem that affects millions of people.

Those arguing in favor of naming diseases in this manner will cite its supposed “accuracy,” and push back against the suggestion that it might be racist. Senator John Cornyn defended referring to it as the Chinese virus.

“China has been the source of a lot of these viruses like SARS, like MERS and swine flu,” he said.

“We’re talking about China, where these viruses emanate from,” he later said.

Despite what Cornyn and others might claim, citing other examples of names that refer to people or places does not excuse continuing to use the same practice. Naming diseases like this serves as a means of ostracizing people.

Numerous reports of violent attacks, both verbal and physical, against Asian-Americans occurred in the past few weeks, perpetrated by those who buy into the idea that China has to serve as the scapegoat for this outbreak. Identifying one group of people to blame for a pandemic only serves as a form of fearmongering and reinforces racist ideas among Americans.

When we call illnesses Singapore virus, Chinese virus or swine flu, it shifts the focus away from combating the outbreak and toward the myth that some place or group of people must be at fault for a problem that affects millions of people.

Even if a specific source for this pandemic does exist, dwelling on that serves little purpose when the problem is this widespread. It absolves the U.S. government of much of their responsibility to protect their citizens, which they need to be held accountable for.

Violating World Health Organization policy and reinforcing outdated racist practices that should never have been practiced to begin with will not end this pandemic any sooner, nor make dealing with it any better. The only people that benefit from such ideas are those who do not understand that we are all at risk and need to be taking action, the same as everyone around us.

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