Right-wing media double down on racist efforts to rebrand coronavirus

Meanwhile, global experts warn that emphasizing geographic ties to the virus is counterproductive

As coronavirus continues to spread through the U.S., resulting in the deaths of at least 33 people and threatening to topple many aspects of Americans’ daily lives, right-wing media is going against the advice of public health experts by trying to rebrand COVID-19 as the “Wuhan” or “Chinese” virus. 

The ongoing efforts to rebrand coronavirus come amid speculation and concern over the political impact that COVID-19 could have on President Donald Trump’s reelection chances in 2020. Desperate to shift the associated blame off of Trump -- whose administration’s slow initial response potentially exacerbated the spread of the virus -- right-wing media figures have now taken up the cause of arguing that the virus needs to be called the “Wuhan” or “Chinese” virus, in order to associate coronavirus with the country it originated from. 

The right’s characterization of coronavirus as the “Wuhan” virus, named for the Chinese city where it was first identified, directly reflects public health officials’ concerns about giving the virus a shorthand name. The World Health Organization chose COVID-19 as a “clinical and nondescript” name in order to avoid “stigmatization of the place from which it originated.” 

The conversation that has emerged out of right-wing media’s stubborn insistence that coronavirus must be attached to the city and country it struck first is “precisely the type of geopolitical back-and-forth that health officials have tried to avoid since releasing more stringent guidelines for naming viruses in 2015,” warned Frank Snowden, Yale University professor emeritus of history and history of medicine, in an interview with The New York Times. Snowden went on to explain why public health officials have made an effort to move away from associating diseases with geographical locations, and why stigmatizing the virus name can become problematic: 

“I think that’s actually quite an aggressive thing and politically charged, and I imagine that people that are still calling it that are using it in a very loaded, ethnic way, and I believe it’s mainly associated with people on the political right. That shows exactly the wisdom of trying to refer to something scientific and factual.”

Attempts to assign blame to a certain place or people in the face of a global health scare have occurred throughout modern history, and it is a phenomenon that public health officials have tried to guard against in recent years.

Some in conservative media point to past examples of diseases that were named after their perceived place of origin. (Many cite the Spanish flu as an example, even though the flu did not originate in Spain and serves as an example of why diseases shouldn’t have a geographical association.) Thomas Levenson, professor of science writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote in The Atlantic about how associating groups of people with infectious diseases has historically been used to stigmatize and dehumanize people along racial and ethnic lines. Levenson concluded that “emphasizing place rather than the clinical details of how a disease works and spreads means that epidemics get a head start.”

In the United States and around the world, the racist impacts of reactions to the coronavirus have been felt for weeks by Asian people and those of Asian descent. This week in New York, a woman was assaulted in what is being investigated as a possible bias incident, “apparently motivated by bigotry surrounding the coronavirus.” In London, a student said he was assaulted by a man who yelled, “I don’t want your coronavirus in my country” in what police described as “a racially aggravated assault.” As racist verbal and physical assaults surged in the wake of the coronavirus, the Anti-Defamation League published a memo warning that extremists are using coronavirus to target groups of people and to mock or smear aspects of Chinese culture.

In sparking a debate over words instead of the urgent public health issues at hand, right-wing media’s attempts to stigmatize coronavirus in order to shift blame away from Trump are as desperate as they are racist. Here are just some examples of conservative media personalities insisting that COVID-19 needs to be called the “Wuhan” or “Chinese” virus: 

  • Fox News host Tucker Carlson complained that media “talking heads have wasted hours upon valuable hours yammering on … about how it's racist to tie the coronavirus to China, where it came from. Please.” 
  • Right-wing website The Federalist has now taken to frequently calling coronavirus the “Wuhan virus” in headlines and articles
  • The Federalist also published an article titled “No, Calling Covid-19 ‘Chinese Virus’ Is Not Racist.” 
  • The Daily Caller covered comments from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) pointing out that it is racist to avoid eating Chinese food in the wake of coronavirus. 
  • The Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh argued that reactions to the coronavirus  are not racist because “Chinese is not a race. You can’t be racist against Chinese people.” 
  • On Hannity, Fox News contributor Dan Bongino complained that media figures are calling out racism around labeling the disease the “Wuhan virus,” calling it “phenomenal” and “a new low.” 
  • The Washington Times wrote an article parroting Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) attacking the media for “its 'Wuhan' word-policing” over coronavirus. 
  • The Daily Wire also covered Ocasio-Cortez’s comments, claiming that “one of the reasons that the political Left does not want the coronavirus to be called something that identifies that it came from China is that it limits their ability to politicize anything bad that happens in the U.S. and use it as a weapon to attack President Donald Trump.” 
  • On Fox & Friends, Fox Business’ Charles Payne complained that people can’t call coronavirus “the Wuhan coronavirus” without being criticized, declaring, “That’s the birthplace of it, yes, so that’s the name of it.”
  • Human Events’ Ian Miles Cheong claimed that efforts to call out the “Wuhan virus” branding as wrong is a narrative “put forth by the Chinese government to absolve them of any responsibility for letting the outbreak spread,” accusing the media of “propagating it.” 
  • Right-wing troll James Woods, who Trump has recently promoted on Twitter, declared that the virus “is a Chinese virus,” adding that “emotional liberals hate facts.” 
  • The Daily Wire’s Michael Knowles bluntly tweeted, “It's called the Wuhan virus.”
  • American Greatness senior fellow Ned Ryun said that “anyone who refuses to call this the Wuhan Virus or Chinese Coronavirus is helping the Communists’ attempts to rewrite history.” 
  • Brigitte Gabriel, founder of anti-Muslim group ACT for America, wrote, “The ‘WUHAN Virus’ is NOT a racist name” seven times in one tweet. 
  • Right-wing podcast host Buck Sexton tweeted that “there’s no good faith argument that its racist” to stigmatize the virus, adding that “people who insist otherwise are being ignorant and childish.” 
  • National Review’s Rich Lowry wrote that “China deserves to be connected to the virus that it loosed on the world.” 
  • USA Today Deputy Editor David Mastio, previously a founding editorial page editor for the conservative Washington Examiner and senior editor for online opinion at The Washington Times, published an op-ed headlined “No, calling the novel coronavirus the ‘Wuhan virus’ is not racist.”