The Political Reasons it’s Suddenly a Chinese Virus

Photo by Yuri Samoilov

Since many of us find ourselves indoors more often these days, maybe you’ve started wondering how this pandemic got its name. The current outbreak was named the Coronavirus or Covid19 because in 2015 the WHO set guidelines to avoid unfair practices in the naming of pandemics. And there have been a few cultural slip-ups that affect how a disease is viewed by the general public.

Perhaps the one we all remember first hearing about was AIDS, the silent killer that tore through the gay community. Was it God’s judgment on an immoral lifestyle as some religious conservatives said, sharing knowing looks? Or was it a blood born virus transmitted by bodily fluids? The early days of public opinion were difficult to shift and held up AIDS treatment for decades.

“Hong Kong residents in 2003 hated the name SARS because they saw in the initialism a specific reference to their city’s status as a Special Administrative Region in China. Even though the name stood for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (incidentally also in the coronavirus group) the similarities were too eye-catching.

Leaders of Saudi Arabia didn’t much like it when Dutch researchers called a coronavirus HCoV-KSA1 ten years later—that stands for Human Coronavirus, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Its eventual standardized name, Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome, still ended up sounding like it was blaming the entire region.”

Adam Rogers, “Coronovirus Has a Name”

You might have heard the current US administration more recently refer to the Covid19 outbreak as a Chinese virus. The sudden switch from Coronavirus, as recently as March 8th, made many media outlets, celebrities and regular people sit up and take notice. As people began pointing out the racist underpinnings of such a label, the administration dug its heels in. Even when specifically asked to reassure the Asian American community, many of whom are worried about or had already receiving tangential hate speech/attacks, none was forthcoming.

Ramping up rhetoric around a Chinese virus serves several purposes. None of which are in the interests of the global community or the type of international collaboration urgently needed to halt the spread of new cases. We don’t need division right now. The people and governments of the world need more collaboration.

But that’s only if you are looking after the greater good. The Chinese virus label is important if there are other items on your agenda. Let’s hope we can start talking about them as well as social distancing precautions. Here are a few that come to mind.

A Common Enemy

The scale of the medical crisis that is building in the US has been previewed in Italy and now Spain. Harsh realities are being forecast: these include running out of hospital beds for patients (along with ventilators and other necessary equipment) plus protective gear for medical staff (from masks to sanitize). And all of that fear and misery need a common enemy. That is outside America and this administration.

Enter: China.

Photo by Robert Couse-Baker

A country long on the worry list because of their communist government. Who then crossed over to envy because of their way to produce cheap goods for unforeseen profit and market dominance. And might always stay on the xenophobia list because of distinctive eating habits.

Make no mistake: I am not a fan of either rampant capitalism nor totalitarian governments. The most exotic thing I’ve eaten is chicken feet (which people seem to forget are also a specialty in some Southern states). That being said, I can also spy a scapegoat when one is being dangled in front of my unmasked face. These are not mutually exclusive thoughts. Or they shouldn’t be.

Worrying Head of Facsim

Because nor am I a fan of the fascist playbook. It worked in Germany in World War II and the chief gear: scapegoating, is poised to churn again. And for an embattled president who already has a lot to answer for, renaming this disease is the perfect segue to deflect attention from the glaring ineptitude of the administration’s response to warnings of a looming crisis.

Calling this a Chinese virus plays up on many of the existing stereotypes for a specific advantage. And the main conspiracy theories point to the bigger picture: undermining the global Chinese position politically, economically, and socially. Who stands to benefit Iran-style embargoes against China? Iran, a country whose government the US has also returned to finding objectionable under this administration, and who is loosing hundreds of people by the day to this illness due to ongoing sanctions. The same senators (and their cronies) who dumped stock right after an intelligence briefing that the stock market was going to tumble.

The long and short of it is laying blame for a pandemic has far-reaching advantages. Getting to assign blame may be the most white privilege move yet.

Interestingly, guess who didn’t get blame during in 1918 for spreading the flu around the world? The United States of America or Great Britain or yes, China. Why do we call it that then? Because the media declared it so when the virus jumped from France to Spain.

Can you think of other reasons why a Chinese virus is a catchy title?

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