"Certainly use of this term by him and others even in the last couple of weeks have led to a noticeable incline in hate incidents that we are seeing," one expert said

By Adam Carlson
March 19, 2020 10:49 AM
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On Feb. 11, the World Health Organization announced an official name for the mysterious new respiratory disease that would soon spread around the world: COVID-19, or coronavirus disease 2019.

It is caused by a strain of new coronavirus first documented in Wuhan, China, in late 2019. (The larger family of coronaviruses also cause cold and other more mild respiratory illnesses but some are severe. The new coronavirus is related to but different from the coronavirus that causes SARS, which first emerged in 2003.)

The WHO is globally responsible for naming infectious diseases. The International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses names viruses. On Feb. 11, they said the new coronavirus strain was SARS-CoV-2, reflecting its link to the SARS virus.

In 2015, the WHO announced new guidelines for how it would name illnesses, clarifying then that disease names should not focus in on geographic locations, the names of people or animals or particular cultural traits (such as someone’s job). Instead, disease names should include the year of first detection and descriptions of the general symptoms caused or bodily systems affected (e.g., cardiac, respiratory, neurologic) as well as the associated environment and season in which it appears and its severity.

“In recent years, several new human infectious diseases have emerged. The use of names such as ‘swine flu’ and ‘Middle East Respiratory Syndrome’ has had unintended negative impacts by stigmatizing certain communities or economic sectors,” Dr. Keiji Fukuda, then the assistant director-general for health security at the WHO, said in May 2015 when the new guidelines were announced.

“This may seem like a trivial issue to some, but disease names really do matter to the people who are directly affected,” Fukuda continued. “We’ve seen certain disease names provoke a backlash against members of particular religious or ethnic communities, create unjustified barriers to travel, commerce and trade, and trigger needless slaughtering of food animals. This can have serious consequences for peoples’ lives and livelihoods.”

With all of that — and President Donald Trump still refers to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus,” despite widespread backlash and the reluctance of some of his own aides to use similar language.

There have been multiple reported instances of violence against Asians in various countries in the wake of the spread of the coronavirus, underlining the risk of attaching a virus or disease to a particular country or ethnicity, as Dr. Fukuda noted in 2015.

“Ethnicity is not what causes the novel coronavirus,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said at a congressional hearing in February.

In an impassioned social media post on Wednesday, Netflix star Lana Condor spoke directly to Trump about his language.

President Donald Trump in February
MANDEL NGAN/Getty Images
From left: Lana Condor and President Donald Trump
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty; James Devaney/GC Images

“You have no idea the ramifications your racist words & actions have on the Asian American community,” she wrote. ‘You simply cannot even fathom the danger you are putting our community in. How dare you. You should be ashamed of yourself. You call yourself a leader? You know what leaders do? They LEAD by setting good examples and ACTION. Something we’ve yet to see you do.”

“Be better,” Condor added. “So we aren’t afraid to leave our house in fear someone will verbally or physically abuse us because of your xenophobia.”

NBA player Jeremy Lin on Tuesday also criticized the president, tweeting, “I wish you would powerfully support the vulnerable people that will suffer due to our mismanagement of this virus, including those that will be affected by the racism you’re empowering.”

In another tweet on Tuesday, he wrote, “Can you honestly tell me there is ZERO anti-Chinese sentiment in all his [Trump’s] characterizations of the virus? Can you honestly tell me Asians aren’t being unfairly physically attacked today in the US? Is it that hard to use coronavirus or COVID-19? We playin the blame game in a crisis.”

Hawaii Five-O and Lost actor Daniel Dae Kim said Thursday he had tested positive for the virus and he spoke out against those using the pandemic to fan racist attitudes.

“Please, please stop the prejudice and senseless violence against Asian people,” he said in a video message on social media. “Randomly beating elderly, sometimes homeless Asian-Americans is cowardly, heartbreaking and it’s inexcusable. Yes, I’m Asian and yes, I have coronavirus, but I did not get it from China, I got it in America, in New York City, and despite what certain political leaders want to call it, I don’t consider the place where it’s from as important as the people who are sick and dying. If I did I would call this thing the New York virus, but that would be silly, right? The name calling gets us nowhere.”

The president first tweeted about the “Chinese virus” on Monday and has used it repeatedly in White House meetings and on Twitter since.

At a coronavirus briefing on Wednesday, he defended his choices after a reporter asked him if he was concerned about the harm it may bring on Asian Americans.

“It’s not racist at all. No. Not at all,” Trump said. “It comes from China. That’s why. It comes from China. I want to be accurate.”

“I have great love for all of the people from our country,” Trump continued. “But, as you know, China tried to say at one point — maybe they stopped now — that it was caused by American soldiers. That can’t happen. It’s not going to happen, not as long as I’m president. It comes from China.”

At that briefing, Trump was also asked about an unnamed White House official who, according to CBS reporter Weijia Jiang, called it the “Kung flu” to her in private. (She has not named the official.)

“I wonder who said that,” Trump said Wednesday. He did not answer when asked if he thought that usage was right or wrong.

A test sample of suspected coronavirus
MARIJAN MURAT/dpa/AFP/Getty

“Do you think using the term ‘Chinese virus’ — that puts Asian Americans at risk, that people might target them?” a reporter asked.

“No, not at all. I think they probably would agree with it 100 percent,” he said. “It comes from China. There’s nothing not to agree on.”

Not so.

“I absolutely think that words used by him matter,” John C. Yang, the president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, told NBC News. “Certainly use of this term by him and others even in the last couple of weeks have led to a noticeable incline in hate incidents that we are seeing. I do think that there is a correlation.”

A New York lawmaker told NBC that Trump’s language was “fueling xenophobia.”

“To continue calling COVID-19 the ‘Chinese virus,’ is to basically be racist,” said Yuh-Line Niou, a member of the New York assembly. “It’s fueling the xenophobia we’re seeing all over our districts.”

Speaking with reporters on Wednesday, White House aide Kellyanne Conway suggested the president’s choice was logical, given a history of diseases named for the places they originate, such as Ebola (named for a river in Africa) and Lyme disease, named for Lyme, Connecticut.

“I think what the president is saying is that is where it was first started,” Conway said — despite the WHO’s guidance since 2015 otherwise.

The Chinese government has criticized Trump’s label, too. As he noted, however, the two countries have other tensions between them.

Last week, a Chinese official tweeted in support of a conspiracy theory that the U.S. military brought the coronavirus to Wuhan, a city in eastern China.

“Parts of Chinese social media, and even the country’s government, appear to have launched a concerted campaign to question the origin of the novel coronavirus,” CNN reported last Friday.

President Donald Trump (right) at a coronavirus briefing earlier this month
JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

The new coronavirus first emerged in Wuhan in December, according to the WHO. But local health officials have been scrutinized for some decisions early in handling the outbreak, such as reporting no new cases of the virus around the same time that millions were traveling through Wuhan for the Lunar New Year.

“A recently submitted complaint to the country’s National Health Commission alleged that during this period, officials with the Wuhan health commission told doctors they were not allowed to report about the new virus, letting patients wander around freely instead of being isolated,” the Associated Press reported last week.

According to the WHO, Chinese investigators also maintained in mid January that they had yet to find “clear evidence of human-to-human transmission” of the virus — despite what experts now know to be the virus’ high infection rate between people.

At the same time, the Chinese government has since been praised by the CDC and others for transparency and openness in working with the global community on combatting the virus, according to the AP.

President Trump has similarly been scrutinized for his response to the virus, which he previously said was being politicized as a “hoax” to damage him.

He has also downplayed the virus compared the seasonal flu, though experts say it is much more dangerous if it is allowed to infect as many people.

This week, however, his rhetoric became noticeably more serious.

Asked on Monday how he would rate his work so far, on a scale from one to 10, he said he would give himself a 10.

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments and visit our coronavirus hub.