The President Should Ditch The Term “Chinese Virus” But Not For The Reasons You Think
One might expect a biracial Chinese American to offer an emotional protest, but my objections have little to do with hurt feelings.
We should discontinue referring to SARS-CoV-2 as the “Chinese virus” not because it lacks political correctness but because doing so is in the best interest of Americans. The term first appeared Mar 16, 2020, before which the President called it the Coronavirus.
Had he always referred to it as the “Chinese virus,” it might be possible to see it as a misunderstanding of emerging infectious diseases, but the term’s arrival coincided with something else. The White House published The President’s Coronavirus Guidelines for America.
Context matters with behavior. Saying China could have prevented this by telling us sooner, is a plausible assertion — but, it doesn’t explain the change.
The lessons we learned from recent outbreaks
- [SARS] showed us we could not rely on others to protect us.
- [Ebola] even countries telling us everything can only tell us what they know, leaving us at risk
- [H1N1]burned through the American population the summer following April 2009 despite catching it early in southern California
Deflecting inquiries to China suggest that we, the American public, should direct our dissatisfaction there, but why on earth would we expect China to look out for our best interest? Looking out for the wellbeing of Americans is the job of the American President.
I doubt the President did entrust our nation’s best interests to a foreign state. Rather, I think he doubted the seriousness of the situation, and that led him to make judgment calls that were not supported by evidence.
That’s the problem, though. Our failures became a global spectacle. Although South Korea found its first COVID-19 case when we did, South Korea had completed 225,000 tests where we struggled to test a few thousand people. The world watched as we relied upon travel restrictions that studies had shown us could not stop the virus from entering.
Then, we did nothing about the problem already multiplying within our borders. The administration continued to restrict testing to recent travelers, for nearly two months after evidence of community spread appeared. See congressional testimony for full details.
The bungled efforts suggest our grasp on science may be declining. Calling it the “Chinese virus” pours gasoline on that spark of suspicion, and the world has noticed. Not long ago, developing countries sent their best students to the US for education. They hoped these newly educated students would improve things upon returning home.
A 1995 book commented on “brain drain” by David Zweig and Chen Changgui remarked:
Suddenly China found itself in the same situation as many developing countries: sending their “best and brightest” to the United States triggered a “brain drain,” and with it the threat that the strategy of sending people abroad to catch up might backfire. But will these people return?
Whatever we call the movement trend, it’s declining, and the US retains fewer international students. They still study here but fewer stay in the US long-term. New contenders have popped up seemingly overnight.
China became an overnight research hub, attracting Americans too. During the 2017 year China’s research publications exceeded ours, but the problem fails to enter public discussion. Maybe we did not appreciate how valuable these students were and are to our country, but the reality shows.
In 2017, the US ranked 38th in math and 24th in science — out of just 71 countries.
We’re the country needing help from the Gates Foundation and drawing the sympathy of a foreign billionaire. Our dire situation means we can ill afford to decline. Now, we’re the epicenter of an outbreak that we violated our international agreements to keep out of the US, except scientists said it wouldn’t work.
If we want a great America again, we should start with the science. We won’t project intellectual prowess by using vague terms that imply we think there is one virus in all of China. The world is brimming with an estimated 1.67 million viruses that live in animals around the world, and talk between countries with different languages and cultures is essential.
Best estimates say around a half million could likely infect humans. Coronaviruses alone may number around 3200, hidden in bat species around the world. We’ve identified around one hundred to date.
The emerging infectious disease world is one where global cooperation is not a luxury. What erupts in the far reaches of the globe is a plane ride away, so when the WHO politely asks that we play nicely, we should consider whether the cost is worth the benefit — whatever that may be.
The President’s refusal betrays his unfamiliarity with the history. Doubtless, many know of viruses named after locations. That is precisely how the WHO devised the method it did. It’s evidence-based. We know which types of names are likely to cause problems. Recently, it was our problem.
The media called H1N1 “swine flu.” The misnomer led countries to slaughter thousands and thousands of pigs, and deeply injured the pork industry. Nothing indicated the virus infected pigs.
Names have power.
Names have such power that they caused people to needlessly slaughter livestock, devastating already-poor families. The WHO cannot protect us when we need it, if we only comply when it benefits us. It’s not a good look.
We caught the wrong end of travel restrictions. Our unilateral travel restrictions are hard to reconcile with our past response to receiving them. Restrictions always incur extreme costs, even when they do offer no benefit — and historical evidence reveals shockingly low efficacy.
For this reason, it is all the more imperative that we root our countermeasures in evidence. Something can feel beneficial and not be; we can hurt ourselves without the intention. Then, there’s our international agreement with 195 other countries, our grounds for getting cranky in 2009, and a document aiming to:
“provide a public health response to the international spread of disease in ways that are commensurate with and restricted to public health risks, and which avoid unnecessary interference with international traffic and trade”
Travel restrictions can work, but their extreme economic and social costs must be a first consideration. If we were going to take such a step, discussing it with IHR participants should go without saying anything first. Without question, we also should have done more to stop the spread many said was already happening.
How does America look now? Our rebellious response to a reasonable request strikes as childish and our disregard for our agreement sets a poor example. Our actions encourage others to do the same and say that we cannot be trusted.
The action also incentivizes concealing outbreaks, something public health experts hoped to avoid. When another virus emerges someday, we will have no recourse if other countries use ineffective countermeasures that harm us.
On what grounds could we possibly object? If we needed restrictions — and I make no claims they were not somewhat beneficial — we should have discussed it with those nations at the bare minimum.
And what of China’s culpability; isn’t that what this is about?
Several studies indicated climate change likely played a role in the 2003 SARS outbreak. This conclusion isn’t exclusive to SARS. Many infectious disease outbreaks appear related to human activity. Even setting climate change aside, one cannot argue that the damaging pollution in southern China could have happened without us.
We spent 400 billion dollars on Chinese products in 2011, and most of the profit stayed in the US. Chinese citizens often worked inhumane hours for pay that mocks their human dignity and trashed their environment.
We wanted cheaper, faster, better, and we wanted it at any cost— just not ours. Companies hoping to exploit cheap labor eliminated American jobs. Over time, the massive pollution has changed China. We didn’t just figuratively trash the place, for over 25 years the US sent garbage and plastic to Asia, not just China.
China totally innocent either. Still, we must distinguish the government from its citizens. Many Chinese citizens, my grandparents included, devoted themselves to becoming the best Americans possible and contributed their intellect, skill, and tax dollars.
They impressed upon me the gift that is having any opinion at all — especially one that conflicts with those in power. Decades removed from their starvation, genocide, and oppression, they were never able to partake in the level of consumption around them.
Regardless of where that waste ends up, it’s still ours. If we’re calling it the Chinese virus to describe where it came from, it should be the Chinese-American virus. Who knows if SARS-CoV-2 could have spilled into the human population with out our contribution?
There’s power in that. If we choose to face this, we can change it. We can use that power, or we can trod down the same path we’ve walked for the last century.
Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are my own and do not reflect any other people or institutions.