Dangerous speech has been spreading together with the coronavirus. Since February, attackers have insulted, punched, spit on, and thrown rocks at people mistakenly presumed to be carriers, particularly east Asians, in several countries. Then this week, in the wake of such incidents, President Trump and his officials and supporters began calling the coronavirus “the Chinese virus,” the “Wuhan virus” or even “Kung flu.” That kind of speech encourages cruel and ignorant stigmatizing, and it’s dangerous in an extra way: by distracting people from reliable information about how to contain the disease, it can help it to spread.
The social and historical context, as we say in Dangerous Speech analysis, is now rife with coronavirus-motivated attacks on people. That means it’s clear that the disease has inspired widespread fear and hostility, so influential people have a greater responsibility to be careful in their language, lest they foment violence.
When U.S. President Donald Trump went out of his way to speak of “the Chinese virus”, his defenders said he was merely stating the truth. It’s true that the virus originated in China, but in the context of attacks on east Asians, it’s dangerous for a highly influential figure like the American president to emphasize the Chinese origin of the virus, by using a name different from its common and official name. Trump did so very deliberately; in his coronavirus press briefing on March 19, a Washington Post photographer captured that on Trump’s printed transcript, the word “corona” was crossed out in black marker and replaced with the word “Chinese.”1
Already more than a month ago, in Ukraine, a small mob tried to stop a convoy of buses carrying evacuees from Wuhan, China, where the epidemic began, to a Ukrainian health spa where they were to be quarantined.2 Some even threw rocks at the buses’ windows. An email that went viral in Ukraine had asserted that some bus passengers were infected but that was false, according to authorities. In a dramatic step to demonstrate the falsehood, the Ukrainian health minister, Zoriana Skaletska, joined the evacuees in their two-week quarantine.3 That was an admirable way to counter dangerous disinformation, and an act of inspired leadership – but she was fired by the Ukrainian president while she was still in quarantine.4
And she could not prevent similar attacks in other countries. A few days later in London, a young Singaporean, Jonathan Mok, reported being savagely beaten by a man who told him “I don’t want your coronavirus in my country.” On the subway in Los Angeles, a Thai-American woman, Tanny Jiraprapasuke, reported being subjected to a hostile tirade by a man who accused her of having the disease, apparently presuming her to be from China.5 On March 23, the New York Times reported that nearly two dozen Asian-Americans from across the country reported in interviews that they are afraid to go out in public, and a professor at San Francisco State University who launched a multilingual website to collect reports of discrimination has collected 150 such accounts in just four days.6
Since widespread infectious disease is deeply frightening, it’s all too easy to turn people against others now. Over the centuries, outbreaks of disease have led to violence against those thought to carry it, including in the United States. During the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic in the United States, Asian-Americans were also subject to hostility and discrimination, even those who were at no risk of carrying the disease. In 1993, the news media referred to an outbreak of hantavirus disease in the Western United States as a Navajo disease, which led to discrimination and hostility toward Native Americans.7 Russian Jewish immigrants suffered similar treatment during 1892 outbreaks of typhus fever and cholera in New York City. And as far back as 1858, when immigrants arriving by ship and suspected of carrying infectious diseases were routinely quarantined on Staten Island in New York City, a crowd of angry local residents burned the entire quarantine hospital to the ground. Kathryn Stephenson, author of a historical account of that fire, noted “[w]hen a deadly contagious disease is loose in a community, fear and desperation can easily triumph and lead to violence.”8
Well aware of this, the World Health Organization has issued guidelines for naming diseases.9 It’s a good start for avoiding dangerous speech with respect to diseases. “Terms that should be avoided in disease names,” wrote the WHO, “include geographic locations (e.g. Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, Spanish Flu, Rift Valley fever), people’s names (e.g. Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, Chagas disease), species of animal or food (e.g. swine flu, bird flu, monkey pox), cultural, population, industry or occupational references (e.g. legionnaires), and terms that incite undue fear (e.g. unknown, fatal, epidemic).”
As the coronavirus continues to spread, government officials and leaders must urgently protect the public. There’s immense work for them to do, simply supplying accurate information about how to fend off the virus, not to mention providing essential equipment like test kits. Surely they don’t have time to distract people with dangerous speech.
This post was updated on March 23, 2020 to add details from a New York Times story published that day.
- Gearan, Ann (2020). “Trump Takes Direct Aim at China as Known U.S. Infections Double and Criticism Mounts.” Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-takes-direct-aim-at-china-as-known-us-infections-double-and-criticism-mounts/2020/03/19/6df10828-6a06-11ea-abef-020f086a3fab_story.html.
- “A Viral Email About Coronavirus Had People Smashing Buses And Blocking Hospitals.” BuzzFeed News. Accessed March 20, 2020. https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/christopherm51/coronavirus-ukraine-china.
- Polityuk, Pavel and Natalia Zinets. (2020) “With Selfie, Ukrainian Health Minister Joins Coronavirus Evacuees in Quarantine.” Reuters. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-health-ukraine-idUSKBN20F1UD.
- Kramer, Andrew E. (2020). “Ukraine’s Zelensky Fires His Cabinet.” The New York Times. Available at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/04/world/europe/ukraine-zelensky-cabinet.html.
- Holly Yan, Natasha Chen and Dushyant Naresh. (2020) “What’s Spreading Faster than Coronavirus in the US? Racist Assaults and Ignorant Attacks against Asians.” CNN. Available at: https://www.cnn.com/2020/02/20/us/coronavirus-racist-attacks-against-asian-americans/index.html.
- Sabrina Tavernise and Richard A. Oppel Jr. (2020), “Spit On, Yelled At, Attacked: Chinese-Americans Fear for Their Safety.” New York Times. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/23/us/chinese-coronavirus-racist-attacks.html
- Person, B., Sy, F., Holton, K., Govert, B., Liang, A., Garza, B….Zauderer, L. (2004). Fear and Stigma: The Epidemic within the SARS Outbreak. Emerging Infectious Diseases 10(2), 358-363.https://dx.doi.org/10.3201/eid1002.030750.
- Kathryn Stephenson (2004). “The Quarantine War: The Burning of the New York Marine Hospital in 1858.” Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1502261/pdf/15147652.pdf
- World Health Organization (2015). “WHO Issues Best Practices for Naming New Human Infectious Diseases.” Available at: https://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/notes/2015/naming-new-diseases/en/.