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Petty virus name game puts lives at risk

By Ian Goodrum | | Updated: 2020-03-21 08:29
US President Donald Trump. [Photo/Agencies]

What's in a name?

Quite a lot, it turns out — and US President Donald Trump knows it.

He's invoked a great deal of anger by deliberately calling the novel coronavirus spreading throughout the world a "Chinese virus" in recent statements. This was preceded by the use of "Wuhan virus" or "Chinese coronavirus" by several hosts on the right-wing Fox News Channel, which Trump watches religiously. No great surprise where he got the idea.

The backlash has been immediate, intense and entirely justified. Over a month ago the World Health Organization gave the virus its official name: COVID-19, in keeping with new best practices for the naming of infectious diseases.

These practices include not identifying a pathogen with a geographic area, culture, animal or group of people — an approach designed to minimize stigma and keep names as neutral as possible. The guidelines were adopted in May 2015, nearly five years ago. Clearly this was not a move made to appease China in the wake of the current situation — unless the organization is somehow capable of time travel — but the COVID-19 pandemic is the first major outbreak to apply these changes.

That timing gave some within the Hong Kong protest clique an opening to spread absurd conspiracy theories about the international organization and its relationship with China. As part of that campaign of misinformation, they stubbornly insisted on continuing to call the disease the "Wuhan virus" or "Chinese virus", in direct defiance of the WHO's recommendation. They wanted to tie one country — their own country — to a virus that could have emerged at any time or place.

Now the far right in the US has taken up the baton, in a media blitz that will undoubtedly lead to violence and discrimination against people of any Asian descent, Hong Kong residents included. Mission accomplished, I suppose.

Defenders of this terminology will claim past diseases were given names tying them to geographic areas. They talk about Ebola and Zika, named for rivers in the African Congo and Brazil, or the "Spanish flu" which ravaged the globe in the early 20th century. Why not use Wuhan or China in the same vein, they ask?

This is what a child does — excusing bad behavior by saying everyone else was doing it. Just because these naming conventions were the norm in the past doesn't mean they should be continued. It used to be acceptable for white Americans to use racial and ethnic slurs — does that mean it's OK to do it now? You won't hear any Fox News host countenance that, only because it has become socially unpalatable even for the far right to do so. They have to rely on a thin veneer of plausible deniability to get their brand of bigotry across. And they have an audience in Trump, as we've clearly seen.

In any event the historical argument is little more than a clumsy dodge. It doesn't even hold water for the counter-examples they trot out to justify their own prejudice. If we take a deeper look at the motivations for such practices, we can find a nearly identical ugliness simmering beneath the surface.

Designating the 1918 influenza as the "Spanish flu", for example, has its own nasty connotations. Spain was a neutral country in World War I and was thus the first place to accurately report its outbreak. It was then branded with a name that became the global shorthand, at a time when Hispanics were seen as dangerous outsiders by many in the United States — not that that's changed much, considering the current treatment of Latin American immigrants.

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