A Virus Turned Violent: How Trump’s Rhetoric Impacted the Asian American Community
COVID-19 Already Has a Name. There’s No Need to Call It the Chinese Virus.
The first time I heard about the novel coronavirus was on one of the last days of winter break, back in January 2020. En route to our last family dinner before my flight back to NYU, my mother informed me that a deadly new disease had been discovered in Wuhan, China, and could easily spread to the United States. She warned me to stay away from any students showing cold symptoms when I got back to school—“especially international students from China.” As I boarded the plane the next day, I wondered how many people were avoiding me the same way I had been told to avoid others who looked like me. I had made sure to wear my NYU sweatshirt that day, specifically to show that I was American.
Fast forward three months. I was boarding yet another plane, this time to fly back to Houston from New York after NYU shut down. I was hyper-conscientious of being not only Chinese, but being Chinese with a face mask. Several hate crimes against Asian Americans had already occurred by that point, and Donald Trump‘s refrain of “China virus“ seemed to ring in my ears every time I saw another report on the news. As violent attacks on Asian Americans increased across the country, President Donald Trump would continue to refer to COVID-19 as “Chinese virus,” “Wuhan virus,” and even “Kung Flu.”
Over the past year, hate crimes against Asian Americans have risen 150% across the United States. That is no coincidence, as many people blame Asian Americans for the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly Chinese Americans and those they mistakenly believe are Chinese Americans. When people in positions of political power repeatedly make the link between China, Chinese people, and this deadly disease, it reinforces the idea that Chinese people are to blame. Despite the rise in hate crimes and consistent backlash against the term, Trump was still calling COVID-19 “China virus” as recently as March 10, in a statement in which he attempted to take credit for the COVID-19 vaccine:
(A quick note: To me, this statement is proof that Donald Trump’s usage of “China virus” is not a simple slip of the tongue or a force of habit. The disease is already referred to as COVID-19 in this statement, and then he goes out of his way to not only bring up China, but attempt to normalize the association between COVID-19 and China. This is intentional.)
To be clear, the words “China virus“ and “Kung Flu” alone did not single-handedly cause these attacks. The politicians who callously throw around these terms did not single-handedly cause these attacks. However, they are part of the political rhetoric that scapegoats Asian Americans, and has made us targets of hate crimes.
How do we know these attacks are racially motivated?
In March 2020, an Asian man in Manhattan was kicked in the back by a teenager who yelled “F–king Chinese coronavirus,” and told the man to go back to his own country. On the same day, in Midtown, an Asian woman was told “Where is your corona mask, you Asian b—h?” by an attacker who punched her in the face.
Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year old Thai man, was attacked and killed on January 28 in San Francisco. Before the attack, Ratanapakdee’s daughter was told to “go back to China.”
A 71-year-old from California reported that, during her daily walk, a woman yelled at her “I hate Chinese people, why do they come to this country?”
Helen Oh of Denver was called “infected and disgusting” by two men on the street.
These are just a few of many incidents in which victims were subject to xenophobic and racist remarks that directly tied them to COVID-19.
A Cambridge University study found that Donald Trump’s racist comments during his 2016 campaign, such as his comments about Mexican immigrants, led more people to feel justified in their racial hatred. Trump’s words had an “emboldening effect,” whereby “in the presence of prejudiced elite speech…the prejudiced are emboldened to both express and act upon their prejudices.” Thus, it makes sense to assume that the former President’s comments about Chinese Americans would also have the same effect.
Why can’t we call COVID-19 a Chinese virus? After all, it did come from China.
We actually do not know for certain that COVID-19 originated in China—we only know that it was first discovered there. In fact, scientists are still not certain exactly where the coronavirus came from. Other viruses have traveled across country borders before being discovered—for example, the first reported cases of HIV in humans were in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but the virus is believed to have originated in Cameroon. But regardless of where a disease came from, there is no justification for blaming a single demographic of people.
How come saying “Spanish Flu” is okay, but “Chinese virus” isn’t?
The disease known as the Spanish Flu did not actually originate in Spain. Since Spanish news sources were the first to report about it, other countries assumed that the disease had originated there. The Spanish, ironically, believed it came from France and referred to it as the “French Flu”—even in 1918, countries were blaming each other for spreading disease. Since then, scientists have suggested that France, China, Britain, and the United States all could’ve been possible sources of the disease.
As of 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) has publicly advised against the practice of naming diseases after individuals or places of origin. Though seemingly trivial, this advisory was put into effect to prevent the very sort of racially motivated hate crimes that we are now witnessing.
“We’ve seen certain disease names provoke a backlash against members of particular religious or ethnic communities,” says Dr. Keiji Fukuda, the Assistant Director General for Health Security at WHO at the time.
Now, the WHO recommends naming diseases after pathogens, or with descriptive terms, such as its symptoms and manifestations, in order to avoid stigmatization.
How is it different from saying “Chinese food?”
In March 2020, Chanel Rion of the right-wing One America News (OAN) was ridiculed on social media after trying to equivocate the term “Chinese virus” with “Chinese food” at a White House briefing. Trump had previously justified his use of the term “Chinese virus” by saying that “it comes from China,” in response to those who pointed out the racism of the phrase. Rion posed a softball question by asking if he believed the term “Chinese food” was racist, because “it is food that originated from China,” leading Trump to respond, “it’s not racist at all.”
The most straightforward explanation for why this equivalence is ridiculous is that a virus is something with which most people have a negative association, while food is not. Associating a race of people with a deadly disease that has caused pain and suffering worldwide is different from associating them with the food they produce. Yes, both may be linked to China, but “Chinese food” is an integral part of Chinese culture that was intentionally created by Chinese people, while COVID-19 is none of those things. The virus is not “Chinese”—it was only first discovered in China. Calling it Chinese has undertones of blame. There’s nothing to blame anybody for when it comes to food and culture.
What can I do to help?
Because of the harm that a bolstered police force can have on Asian Americans and other BIPOC communities, increased policing is not an ideal solution.
Instead, I suggest the following alternative approaches, all of which are community-based rather than police-based:
Support local Chinatowns and Chinese restaurants
Volunteer in a foot patrol to protect elderly Asian citizens by accompanying them to places. Several counties in California are currently doing these.
Donate to organizations that directly help Asian communities
Check in with your Asian American friends and offer them emotional and moral support
Speak out whenever you witness incidences of xenophobia or xenophobic rhetoric
Finally, here is an active list of Asian American community resources to help in different regions of the US
In light of the recent incident in Atlanta:
Support Red Canary Song, a grassroots organization that supports Asians in the sex work industry
Donate to NAPAWF, an organization that supports AAPI women and girls
Know the names and stories of the victims. These are real people with real lives whose families are now experiencing one of the worst things that a person can experience.
Soon-Chung Park, 74
Hyun-Jung Kim, 51
Sun-Cha Kim, 69
Yong-Ae Yue, 63
Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33
Paul Andre Michels, 54
Xiaojie Tan, 49
Daoyou Feng, 44
Elcias Hernandez Ortiz (Survived)
Marcus Lyon (Survived)
Eun-Ja Kang (Survived)
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It's so upsetting. I know a few friends who are Asian who have been harassed with these terms. Glad you're highlighting this issue!
That part about the usage of "China/Chinese virus" emboldening supporters of the GOP... it's terrifying how one thing like that almost acts as a green light for them to express all the hate they've been holding in for who knows how long. This was excellently written, Caitlin! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I honestly just hope that people can put their money where their mouth is and show their support through more than just infographics and hashtags. Visibility is important and all but we should be seeking concrete change. Thank you for sharing actions and resources to direct readers in that direction.