For the second day in a row, President Trump opened a press conference today devoted to an outbreak that has now killed more than 200 Americans without saying the word “coronavirus.” Instead, he substituted his chosen name: “The Chinese Virus.”
Other Republicans are also racing to rebrand the virus that causes COVID-19. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has called it “Chinese Coronavirus,” while Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar is trying to make “Wuhan Virus” a thing. One White House official even allegedly referred to the global pandemic as “Kung-Flu.”
The World Health Organization intentionally avoids this, and advises against any possible nickname for a disease that calls up people, places, groups, or even professions, because those names can create a stigma. Even the Trump-appointed director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Robert Redfield, told the House in a hearing that using location-specific labels for the virus is “absolutely wrong and inappropriate.”
There is a long, inglorious history of naming diseases after disdained groups. In 1495, Russians called a syphilis outbreak the Polish Disease, the Polish called it the German Disease, and the French and Italians named it after each other. The 1918 flu pandemic that infected over a quarter of the world’s population is still referred to as “The Spanish Flu,” even though there is no consensus on where that outbreak originated. Spain just happened to have the most reliable reporting at the time, as other countries censored their press to boost morale during World War I. Because Spain reported the first illness-related death, it got stuck with the name.