Coronavirus, Racial Scapegoating, and Stigma

The language of COVID-19, the blame game, and xenophobia

DJ Kaiser, PhD
Mar 26 · 12 min read
Sculpture in Singapore. Photo by author.

On March 23, 2020, The New York Times published an article “Spit On, Yelled At, Attacked: Chinese-Americans Fear for Their Safety” detailing many instances of Chinese-Americans and other Asian Americans being verbally and physically assaulted in the United States. Why?

Language has played a key role in this recent rise of xenophobia aimed at Asian communities and individuals. Many having pointed to the term “Chinese Virus,” which has been used to scapegoat Chinese people and other people of Asian descent for a global pandemic caused by a virus that does not care about anyone’s race or ethnicity.

In their The New York Times piece on what members of the Chinese-American community are facing, Sabrina Tavernise and Richard A. Oppel Jr. connect this to another U.S. episode of racial scapegoating:

In interviews over the past week, nearly two dozen Asian-Americans across the country said they were afraid — to go grocery shopping, to travel alone on subways or buses, to let their children go outside. Many described being yelled at in public — a sudden spasm of hate that is reminiscent of the kind faced by American Muslims, Arabs and South Asians in the United States after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

While I am white, I am no stranger to the blame game. I wrote in another piece about trying to donate blood in college as a gay man. My community was an early scapegoat for the AIDS outbreak and some still blame my community to this day. This has left me and others in my community with a stigma that persists to this day, especially when it comes to viruses, responsibility, and blame.

Other communities have faced similar situations. The Muslim community after 9/11 for anything related to terrorism. The Mexican community for anything related to immigration. And now the Asian community for the novel coronavirus pandemic. This is the blame game.

This piece examines President Trump’s use of the term the “Chinese virus” to describe the novel coronavirus pandemic or COVID-19. These two words alone — “Chinese virus” — have not only permitted but also given rise to xenophobia and overt racial discrimination.

As evidence, I will examine how people on social media have tried to manipulate and even justify their own racial stereotyping after the president of the United States made it acceptable to do so (despite his more recent attempts to mitigate the damage done by his public words).

Most importantly, I call for us to take the lead given by respected health professionals and journalists who have found both accurate and respectful language to report and discuss the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The “Chinese Virus”

Screenshot by author.

Jabin Botsford, a staff photographer at The Washington Post, posted these photos to Twitter on March 19. These two photos show that in President Trump’s prepared speech that “Corona” was crossed out and “Chinese” was written in before his White House briefing.

Twitter users took to their responses with varying reactions: those who found his language choices offensive and those who found this term “accurate” and supported his language choices. Here are a few random selections of responses to this one tweet (from the more than nine thousand that have be posted so far). Please note that some of these responses are offensive (in addition to offending many rules of grammar, capitalization, and punctuation).

Responses that Find Trump’s Language Offensive

  • “Doesn’t he understand how he is provoking prejudice against asian women and families in nyc friends of mine were hit in the head and verbally attacked because of his racist terminology it’s called Covid 19 virus not the C virus. Is he so stupid. Or what.” [Note the use of “C virus” to avoid the use of an offensive phrase]
  • “Time for more bigotry from the Fat Orange Virus infesting the White House. “Never let a good crisis go to waste”, eh? #Biden2020” [Calling this bigotry]
  • “He’s an racist moron! It has a name, COVID19, it’s apparently far too scientific for him to comprehend? How did we get here? This mixed message of a Democratic hoax, to all hands on deck has caused mass panic, he’s a damn fool!” [Calling Trump racist]
  • “Words matter! @hrw found COVID19 motivated anti-Asian hate crimes including physical attacks & beatings, violent bullying in schools, angry threats & discrimination in workplaces. Instead of warning against that, our president is stoking those fires” [Linking language to threats and violence against members of the Asian community]
  • “Funny how he was calling it #coronavirus back in January and was very complimentary of the Chinese government, but now calls it “Chinese virus” because he thinks the racist dogwhistle will get him donations from his racist base.” [Pointing to a change in Trump’s terminology and a possible (political) rationale]

Responses Supportive of Trump’s Language

  • “Good! I am glad you pointed it out, because that is precisely what this is: The CHINESE VIRUS. You people need to stop this childish and vindictive garbage. You people are just chomping at the bit to create MORE problems. You’re just another trouble maker. GROW UP and STOP IT!” [Trying to call out Trump’s opposers]
  • “One more reason I trust Trump. He speaks the truth regardless of BS political correctness or Liberal brainwashing. Everyone knows the virus came from China, but calling the virus Chinese is somehow bad?” [Anti-political correctness with blaming China]
  • “It’s good he decided to revise his notes to be more accurate.” [Calling Trump’s choice more “accurate”]
  • “This virus..CHINESE WUHAN CORONAVIRUS did come from China. The President is correct in being honest about it. China should be severely punished for lying.” [Calling it “correct” and “honest”; adding Wuhan to the name of the virus; calling for punishment of China]
  • “That is true the virus is Chinese was built in Chinese lab Communist to dominant the world Also in the same time Xi Jinping will Eliminate the old sick people from China that way he will save money and make money because mask protection is make in China every world will used.” [Conspiracy theory to justify blaming China]
  • “It is the CHINESE virus. It originated there. If people have become so PC that they cannot accept the truth, that’s on them. Call it what you want, Kung flu, corona, whatever floats your boat….but it will forever be known as the Chinese virus that infected the world.” [“Kung flu” demonstrates adding to the racism of the “Chinese virus”]
  • “It is a Chinese virus. There’s a Hong Kong flu a Spanish flu and others flu names where they originate.” [Rationalization based on other names for viruses]

You can go to the original tweet and read through the responses. What is certain is that those on Twitter are quite divided by the appropriateness of the term “Chinese Virus.”

Screenshot by author.

No doubt, President Trump received some advice that he may want to or need to address his choice in language.

On March 24, Jabin Botsford tweeted the following two photos (from the March 23rd press briefing) with a note that before addressing the public “Chinese” was crossed out so that it would only be “virus,” but then a new paragraph was inserted into this speech, which Trump read as he addressed the nation:

It is very important that we totally protect our Asian American community in the United States and around the world. They are amazing people, and the spreading of the virus is NOT their fault in any way, shape, or form. They are working closely with us to get rid of it. WE WILL PREVAIL TOGETHER!

The same message was tweeted by Trump himself.

While the president of the United States made a statement to affirm Asian Americans, it has not eliminated or stopped the racial scapegoating of Chinese people and blaming China for the virus.

But Wasn’t it First Called the “Chinese Virus”?

After Jabin Botsford’s tweet, some of the responses attempted to challenge Botsford and his paper because The Washington Post had — indeed — used the term “Chinese Virus.” But let’s look at this more closely.

Screenshot by author.

Numerous people posted this January 27 headline: “Chinese virus infections and death toll spike.”

Note how @WallWallme posts this to accuse The Washington Post of printing a “racist” headline (because if they can say it then I can say it).

The Washington Post does not call this new virus “the Chinese virus,” in fact, the entire article consistently uses “coronavirus” throughout the article. Seven times. I looked up the article. I counted.

Let’s take this a step further.

On February 11, The New York Times published the story “The Illness Now Has a Name, COVID-19.”

COVID-19 is an abbreviation for Corona Virus Disease 2019. Coronavirus is a previously known and studied disease (such as, SARS and MERS) and 2019 was the year of the first reported case for this novel (new) coronavirus.

(Note that some reports also call COVID-19 SARS-CoV-2, which is an abbreviation for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome — Corona Virus — 2.)

Please note the rationale provided by the World Health Organization for the new official name of COVID-19:

The World Health Organization said it had chosen a name for the disease that makes no reference to places, animals or people to avoid stigma.

This is important to point out because many have been providing a rationale that because we have had the “Spanish Flu,” the “German Measles,” and, yes, recently “Middle East Respiratory Syndrome” (MERS), that it is, therefore, not offensive, but rather “accurate” to call Coronavirus or COVID-19 the “Chinese virus.”

Even Dr. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and a chief adviser to Trump during this pandemic, has stated that he would never use the term the “Chinese virus.

Again, read the rationale for not referencing places (e.g., China), animals (e.g., swine), or people (e.g., gay) when referencing the name for a disease: to avoid stigma.

You may see the tweet from the World Health Organization on February 11, which explains the rationale for COVID-19 in more detail, but here are a few highlights:

Under agreed guidelines between WHO, the @OIEAnimalHealth [World Organisation for Animal Health] & @FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations], we had to find a name that did not refer to a geographical location, an animal, an individual or group of people, and which is also pronounceable and related to the disease.

Having a name matters to prevent the use of other names that can be inaccurate or stigmatizing. It also gives us a standard format to use for any future coronavirus outbreaks. — @DrTedros

My reading is that The Washington Post simply used a headline to let readers know that there was a new virus in China, but in the article they used the appropriate terminology. Had The Washington Post talked about “the Chinese virus,” then they would be naming it such. The Washington Post did not do this; President Trump did.

Language matters and here it is the use of the definitive article (“the”) that is key. (The readers may note that I am a specialist in teaching English as a second language and I have taught this lesson on article usage many times.)

But let’s also remember that it is not unheard of during earlier reporting of a new virus or disease to use terms that may not be official. These terms or phrases — though used early on — will be given an appropriate, public name when health officials have the opportunity to do so.

For example, AIDS was first referred to by many in the media as “gay cancer.” Many may forget that in 1982 it was first called “Gay-Related Immune Deficiency” or GRID until the CDC changed the name to Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome or AIDS later that same year.

As a gay man, I can say that the stigma of HIV and AIDS has remained decades later. Any type of scapegoating, blame game, or othering is essentially some form of bullying or a hate crime when the acts as described by Sabrina Tavernise and Richard A. Oppel Jr. in their New York Times piece reach the level of hate speech, spitting, threats, and personal harm.

When the president of your country knowingly and repeatedly uses terminology — such as the “Chinese Virus”—that emboldens people to bully and commit hate crimes that cause people of Asian descent to feel fear, to experience harassment, and to be victimized then we have crossed the line from insensitivity to political malpractice.

Screenshot by author.

As we all seek to educate ourselves on the recent statistics, on how we can flatten the curve, on how we can save more lives, and on how we can each do our own part to slow the spread of the virus, we also each need to do our part to prevent the spread of toxic discourse.

Notice how this person (see screenshot) literally spreads false news by saying that COVID stands for “Chinese Originated Viral Infectious Disease.” And sadly, this person also does not know that the World Health Organization chose 19 for the year 2019 (not because it was the 19th virus to come out of China).

Notice that this tweet from @LoriSnow1225 is in response to Jabin Botsford. With her tweet she is attempting to shame journalists who have actually done their fact checking and found sensitive and humane ways to report on what is going in our world today.

If only our president would listen to trusted health officials. This is where respected journalists take their lead. We should take that same lead as we choose the language we use to describe, discuss, and even debate the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Language Matters

The language we hear and the language that we choose to use matters. While we may quibble over the meaning of “shelter in place,” “stay at home,” and “social distancing,” some are not paying enough attention to the very language used to explain why we are all working together to flatten curve in our communities and around the world.

This is why we have trusted organizations, such as the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These organizations have presented us with language for us to use. Our leaders, such as President Trump, should model that language just as he should model proper social distancing.

Simply put, coronavirus is a general term for a group of different respiratory viruses and COVID-19 is the newest coronavirus we have encountered. As such, many journalists and media outlets have been using both “Coronavirus” and “COVID-19” — sometimes interchangeably.

Fortunately, most health care professionals, most journalists, most politicians, and hopefully most everyday citizens will stop for a moment and consider the implications of the language they use. Neither “coronavirus” nor “COVID-19” scapegoat an entire community or create stigma.

Yes, many of us are afraid. Yes, many of us are not happy with how all of this has been handled. Yes, many of us could recommend alternative ways to manage this situation.

A pandemic is never an excuse for racial scapegoating, for playing the blame game, for creating stigma for an entire population, and for infecting our society with language far more malicious and pernicious than a virus, leading to new outbreaks of ignorance, intolerance, and hate.



DJ Kaiser, PhD is the Associate Dean for the School of Education and Director of Teaching English as a Second Language at Webster University in St. Louis. With more than two decades of experience in the field of English language teaching, he has delivered presentations, workshops, and seminars on language instruction, language planning and policy, technology for education, and program development throughout the United States and in Mexico, Canada, China, Thailand, Vietnam, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Spain, Greece, Holland, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, and Ecuador. Twitter: @djkaiser_phd.

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DJ Kaiser, PhD

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Webster University Associate Dean (School of Education) & Director of TESL; world traveler (30+ countries); critical perspective; diversity & Queer advocate

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