As of 2015, the World Health Organization advises against naming infectious diseases after cultural, national or ethnic groups. [Credit: Corryn Wetzel | CC BY-SA 4.0]
Does what we call a virus really matter?
Corryn Wetzel speaks with a professor of ethnic studies, a civil rights organization and an infectious disease expert to understand how rhetoric around COVID-19 has impacted Asian-Americans.
VO: Corryn Wetzel
Press Briefing 3/18
Catherine Choy, professor of Asian American and Asian Diaspora Studies at UC Berkeley
Marita Etcubañez, director of strategic initiatives for Advancing Justice | AAJC
Dr. John Lynch, an infectious disease researcher at the University of Washington
(0:11-0:21) Audio clip of Trump’s opening statements from press conference 3/18: “I would like to begin by announcing some important developments in our war against the Chinese virus.”
VO: A viral photo of President Trump’s notes from a news conference on March 19 showed he’d made some edits to his script. He drew a line through the word “Corona” and replaced it with the word “Chinese.”
Audio clip continues: (23:58-24:05) “It’s not racist at all, no. Not at all. It comes from China. That’s why. It comes from China. I want to be accurate… ”
CHOY: (3:48-4:18) “What’s particularly concerning about calling Covina 19 “China virus” or “Chinese virus” is that it results in unique and potentially violent consequences for Asian Americans and for Asians around the world.
VO: That’s Catherine Choy, professor of Asian American and Asian Diaspora Studies at the University of California Berkeley.
While the virus may have originated in China, it’s since become a global pandemic, impacting over 200 counties and infecting more than 1 million people, as of early April. Today, the US has more cases of COVID-19 than China.
I spoke with Marita Etcubañez, from Asian Americans Advancing Justice–AAJC, a civil rights organization that advocates for the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. Ectubañez says that calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” is more than just incorrect, it’s dangerous.
ETCUBAÑEZ: (2:34-2:46) “We have seen that the language has provoked an increase in hate incidents and even hate crimes against members of our community. (4:26-4:30) We’re seeing very real consequences from this terminology.”
VO: Asian Americans Advancing Justice created a website in 2017 called standagainsthatred.org where people can report racist crimes and find resources and support.
This isn’t the first time the president’s rhetoric has made an impact––Etcubañez says they launched the website after seeing a spike in hate crimes leading up to the 2016 presidential election.
ETCUBAÑEZ: (3:23-3:59) “We have been stating that this is not just a matter of political correctness or hurt feelings, right? We know that words matter. Words have consequences. In a time when people are already incredibly fearful and perhaps looking for someone to blame, such terminology really puts a spotlight on our communities and can serve as a justification for people who are looking for someone to blame.”
VO: Etcubañez says language like “Chinese virus” can unfairly point blame at innocent people.
ETCUBAÑEZ: (4:02-4:24) “We’ve heard lots of people, Asian Americans, who as they’re out and about are actually called “Corona,” are told to go home, go back to China. They’re blamed for bringing the virus or carrying the virus when there’s no evidence that Asian Americans are––we are––not the source or more contagious than any other person.”
VO: Dr. John Lynch, an infectious disease researcher at the University of Washington, emphasizes that there is no group of people more likely to spread or contract coronavirus than any other.
LYNCH: (7:46-8:01) “Ultimately, although these types of infectious diseases will prey upon marginalized, impoverished populations preferentially, pathogens don’t respect those boundaries. (4:00-4:18) “How we react to infectious diseases with outbreak potential is critical and in many times is far more important than the biology of the virus or pathogen itself.”
VO: COVID-19 may be new, but blaming infectious diseases on certain countries or groups of people isn’t. Dr. Lynch says similar fears circulated during the rise of the HIV epidemic in the 1980s. Before the virus was called HIV or AIDS, it was called GRID, short for “Gay-related immune deficiency.”
Lynch: (2:37-3:08) The public perception of people who were even thought to be gay, around that time was awful. And really led to additional marginalization and probably propagated the epidemic as people weren’t able to access healthcare, weren’t able to get to the medical advice that they needed and led to all kinds of other social manifestations.
In 2015, the World Health Organization updated its guidelines on naming infectious diseases, saying we should avoid names that include things like geographic locations or groups of people, which can create confusion and fear.
CHOY: (8:55-9:30) “When something is referred to as the “Spanish flu” or “West Nile virus,” a number of scholars and policymakers have pointed out that this has led to also stigma of particular ethnic or national groups or particular places and have resulted in social and economic discrimination.”
The WHO guidelines warn that, once a disease is given a name, especially by those outside the scientific community, it’s difficult to change. In recent days, President Trump has refrained from using the term “Chinese virus,” but racism and stigma don’t always fade so quickly.
In many cases, the same people being blamed for COVID-19 are the ones trying to help sick Americans, says Choy.
CHOY: (8:55-9:30) “Asian American health providers are working on the frontlines of this pandemic in hospitals, in nursing homes, who are at the bedside and in ERs.
(7:11-7:25) And so this kind of anti-Asian hostility during this time and with this disease just adds another level of anxiety that they don’t need.”
Instead of placing blame, Choy says what we need most now is to support each other.
CHOY: (9:54-10:23) “We can’t get through this without that communal collective care across racial, ethnic and national borders. So I really hope that we learn from this longer history and can move beyond the virus of racism as well as the novel coronavirus.”
Trump’s press conference 3/18:
Reporter: “And do you think using the term ‘Chinese Virus,’ that puts Asian Americans as risk, that people might target them?” Trump: “No, not at all. No, not at all. I think they probably would agree with it 100%. It comes from China….”
For Scienceline, I’m Corryn Wetzel