Story at a glance
- The threat of the coronavirus has led to an increase in xenophobia and racism, especially towards Asian Americans.
- President Trump has been criticized for his use of the term “Chinese virus” for the past week before abruptly dropping it on Monday.
- Experts say that naming viruses after geographic locations or groups of people is problematic for a host of reasons.
For months now, the novel coronavirus has held the world in its grasp, causing death, sickness, the closing of businesses, crashes of the stock market and costing thousands of Americans their jobs. The spread of the virus has also had detrimental side effects that were a bit less predictable, such as an increase in xenophobic behavior and racially charged incidents which unfairly direct blame toward Asian Americans.
Since the start of the year, President Trump has changed his attitude towards the now-pandemic several times. Initially downplaying the severity of the spread, President Trump changed his tune mid-March and warned that the outbreak could last until July or August, saying the virus was “really bad.”
Another rhetorical flip flop the president has shown is in his address of the virus itself, first calling it the coronavirus while lauding Chinese President Xi Jinping as “strong, sharp and powerfully focused on leading the counterattack on the coronavirus.” President Trump emphasized back in January and February that the U.S. government was working closely with China to contain the disease at the time.
This changed on March 16 when President Trump and senior members of his administration began their attempts to brand the outbreak as the result of a “Chinese virus,” as they simultaneously ramped up accusations that Beijing failed to warn the United States about the virus early on.
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“I wish they could have told us earlier about what was going on inside. We didn’t know about it until it started coming out publicly, but I wish they could have told us earlier about it because we could have come up with a solution,” President Trump said last Saturday during a White House briefing.
Since then, President Trump has continued to refer to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” despite the guidelines set out by public health experts and the World Health Organization (WHO), who have said naming viruses after geographic locations or groups of people is inaccurate, inappropriate and could aid in the creation of negative connotations for Asian Americans, specifically those of Chinese descent.
At a press conference Wednesday, President Trump was unapologetic when answering a reporter’s question about his choice to refer to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus,” saying that he continues to refer to the virus that way because “it comes from China,” and said the label is “not racist.”
Close up of President @realDonaldTrump notes is seen where he crossed out “Corona” and replaced it with “Chinese” Virus as he speaks with his coronavirus task force today at the White House. #trump #trumpnotes pic.twitter.com/kVw9yrPPeJ
— Jabin Botsford (@jabinbotsford) March 19, 2020
“I can’t jump in front of the microphone and push him down,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), during an interview with Science Magazine. “OK, he said it. Let’s try and get it corrected for the next time.” Fauci also disclosed that he has never used the term himself and never will.
Dr. Mike Ryan, the executive director of WHO’s emergencies program, highlighted the effects of using a particular kind of language surrounding the coronavirus and its origins, “lest it lead to the profiling of individuals associated with the virus.”
A sudden change in tune
By Monday it seemed as if President Trump was now attempting a reversal in his rhetoric and abruptly stopped using the term for the first time in days during a White House press conference. “It is very important that we totally protect our Asian American community in the United States, and all around the world,” said President Trump. “They are amazing people, and the spreading of the Virus is NOT their fault in any way, shape, or form,” President Trump tweeted before his daily White House Press conference.
A photo, shown at the top of the page, was captured by a reporter during the press conference and shows that the word “Chinese” had actually been crossed off in what appears to be black Sharpie marker on President Trump’s official script, though he did not make any attempt to acknowledge a shift away from his past usage of the term until an interview with Fox News Tuesday night.
“I don’t regret it, but they accused us of having done it through our soldiers, they said our soldiers did it on purpose, what kind of a thing is that?” President Trump said to Fox News host Bill Hemmer, referring to conspiracy theories that incorrectly claim that the coronavirus originated in a U.S. military lab and was brought to China by American soldiers. “Look, everyone knows it came out of China, but I decided we shouldn’t make any more of a big deal out of it. I think I made a big deal. I think people understand it. But that all began when they said our soldiers started it. Our soldiers had nothing to do with it.”
For those who have condemned his use of the term “Chinese virus,” President Trump’s statements on Monday were certainly seen as an improvement, but some remain wary of the sudden shift, including experts on racist behavior such as Grace Kao, Ph.D., Chair and IBM Professor of Sociology at Yale University.
“Even within that quote he uses the words ‘us and them’ in a way that very clearly marks that Asian Americans are not ‘us,’” says Kao. “I feel like those last few sentences are really saying they, Asian Americans (who are not us), are working closely with us, Americans. So it just seemed like even when he was trying to be a little bit more sympathetic or at least say the right things about protecting Asian Americans, the last two sentences of his comment still separate Asians from his collective ‘us.’”
A problem with long roots
As a Chinese American herself, Kao has personally felt the effects of racism and the “us versus them” mentality of xenophobia due to her cultural background, alongside the many Asian-Americans who have increasingly been targeted since the coronavirus began to spread.
Kao tells Changing America that President Trump’s past usage of the term “Chinese virus” accentuates the fact that the virus is thought of as foreign, and that “Chinese Americans and Asian Americans are also foreign because they’re a part of a population that has never quite been seen as actually ‘American-American.’”
“The first law enacted to restrict a group from entering the U.S. was actually the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882,” says Kao. “So, from the beginning Asian Americans have been singled out as a foreign presence, and it’s something that every Asian American person is aware of, because we’re constantly being asked: ‘where did you learn to speak English so well’ and where we are from, because we can never be seen as simply being from America.”
“With something like COVID-19, where everyone is scared of catching it, Asian Americans become the physical embodiment of disease, so we’re seen with great suspicion. I’m a little scared to go outside, frankly, especially if I start coughing.”
Kao says that one silver lining for Asian Americans experiencing this unjust increase in xenophobia is the realization that they are also people of color, and that they can find solidarity in the same fear that they may feel for being “different” alongside African Americans and Latinx people. She reminds us that Asian Americans are sometimes given derogatory monikers such as being “white adjacent” or “model minorities,” and says that this pandemic could promote, “just the feeling of unity among all people of color. I think that’s the positive part that I see.”
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