President Donald Trump keeps calling it the “Chinese virus,” public health experts keep telling him not to, and the stakes keep getting higher.
As the president doubles down on the phrase, Democrats in Congress warn it could put Americans in harm’s way. “For me it’s not about China, it’s about Asian Americans who need to be respected,” Rep. Mark Takano said in an interview with CQ Roll Call.
“This virus is going to affect Democrats, Republicans, independents, Chinese, Europeans all the same,” said the California Democrat, while noting that the rhetoric surrounding it will not.
Trump used the term again on Friday, and his explanations throughout the week have veered between geography and geopolitics. “It’s not racist at all,” he reasoned on Wednesday, because the first cases of the novel coronavirus emerged in China. A day earlier, the president said he was trying to combat disinformation. “China was putting out information which was false, that our military gave this to them,” Trump said from the podium of the White House briefing room. “Rather than having an argument, I said I have to call it where it came from.”
Those defenses ignore the realities for Asian Americans on the ground, Takano said. “Being disrespectful to your fellow Americans, allowing xenophobic attitudes to be commonplace, unchecked, results in real consequences,” said the California Democrat.
The naming debate has brought into focus another complaint about the president’s handling of the crisis — that he has at times ignored the advice of medical experts. The World Health Organization has been urging people not to “attach locations or ethnicity to the disease,” issuing a memo in February that framed the guidance as something almost as basic as washing your hands. “This is not a ‘Wuhan Virus,’ ‘Chinese Virus’ or ‘Asian Virus,’” reads the memo, warning of an “infodemic” that could spread harmful stigma.
Meanwhile, most lawmakers in Congress, even the president’s fiercest allies, have stuck to WHO-approved terms like “the coronavirus” and “COVID-19” when describing the virus in public. That makes the exceptions all the more noticeable. After House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy used the phrase “Chinese coronavirus” in a March 9 tweet, a chorus of Democrats demanded an apology.
Both Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona have referred to it as the “Wuhan virus,” with the former saying “China has unleashed this plague on the entire world” and the latter adding the hashtag “#MadeinChina.”
Those claims track with not only the president’s escalating rhetoric on China, but also unsubstantiated conspiracy theories attempting to link the virus to a bioengineering lab.
As for Sen. Charles E. Grassley, he appealed to geography, tweeting surprise that China would be upset over the term. “Spain never got upset when we referred to the Spanish flu in 1918&1919,” the Iowa Republican wrote.
Observers were quick to point out that the example didn’t exactly help his cause. The influenza pandemic that began in 1918 and killed millions of people has been called “Spanish flu,” but many scholars believe the disease did not begin in Spain.
Either way, lawmakers should be thinking about how their words affect constituents at home, Democrats say. Rep. Judy Chu has called out colleagues repeatedly.
Chu, the first Chinese American woman elected to Congress, and Takano, who is Japanese American, joined fellow members of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus to warn against stoking xenophobia. That was in February.
Now it is March, and Takano says he is still trying to drive home that message, as the president leans into his chosen name for the virus.
“Calling #COVID19 the ‘Chinese Virus’ is incredibly racist,” the Democrat wrote on Twitter this week. “Ignorant tweets will only lead to hate and discrimination against the Asian American community.”
Takano praised Trump’s sober tone in his most recent press briefings and willingness to take on the pandemic in a serious way. Still, “we can’t stand together if some of us feel disrespected and humiliated and potentially put at risk,” Takano said over the phone.
He highlighted the 1982 Detroit murder of a Chinese American man named Vincent Chin, who was beaten to death by two white men — a Chrysler plant supervisor and a laid-off autoworker. The fight that led to the 27-year-old draftsman’s death is believed to have been motivated by anti-Japanese sentiment among autoworkers who blamed the domestic industry’s decline on a rising Japan’s auto industry.
Takano stressed that rhetoric from people like Trump can have dangerous repercussions, just like in Chin’s case.
The Asian American Journalists Association has issued guidance asking reporters to use care in their coverage to “ensure accurate and fair portrayals of Asians and Asian Americans and to avoid fueling xenophobia and racism that have already emerged since the outbreak.”