If you have taken even the most cursory glance at your social media feeds you have no doubt come across an exchange that looks something like this:
A: Stop calling it the “Chinese Virus,” it’s the coronavirus and its disease is COVID-19. “Chinese Virus” is racist!
B: Do we consider “Chinese food” racist? That’s where the virus came from!!
A: But the term harms people!
B: The virus came from China and the Chinese government lied about it! They’re the ones to blame in all this!
Neither side in this debate seems capable of convincing the other and exchanges like this often continue in this cycle, frequently descending into alternating bouts of accusations of racism or self-righteousness.
I learned long ago that whenever the answers to a question are unsatisfactory or don’t admit of resolution, it’s the question that’s wrong.
For the question of what is the proper name for a virus that originated in China is not what should we call it, but why should we call it a given thing?
When we examine the whys we find that any defense of the term Chinese virus fails—at least on any grounds that a person of faith should find acceptable.
The official scientific name for the virus is “SARS-CoV-2” which stands for “Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2.” (It was originally identified simply as the “novel coronavirus.”) The disease it creates is “COVID-19,” which stands for “Coronavirus Disease 2019.” Some in leadership in recent days have taken to calling the virus the “Chinese virus,” for reasons that we will not explore here on a blog that is primarily about religion and language.
And thus the debate as to whether it is a defensible to use the term “Chinese virus.” As one common objection notes, “It’s not racist to use the term ‘Chinese food,’ is it?” In response others point to the rising numbers of attacks on Asian-Americans ever since the advent of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Let’s leave aside the question of whether it is appropriate to identify the virus as the “Chinese virus” and ask only this question: why do you want to?
Unlike the term Chinese food, the phrase Chinese virus offers me no information that is of use to me. If someone were to offer me a choice between Chinese food and Indian food, that would actually convey me some information about likely ingredients, relative spiciness, and so on. If someone were to tell me that they had purchased some traditional Chinese art, I would have some understanding of what aesthetic that art might have. However, what information do I glean, or does anyone, for that matter, from a description of a virus—a virus that is now on six of the seven continents on the planet—as a Chinese virus?
Even were I a medical professional, this information would communicate nothing of value. Unless it only affected people of Chinese ancestry, of what therapeutic use would knowing what country the disease originated in do me as an ordinary person or as a medical caregiver? Now, if I am an epidemiologist and interested in tracking the spread of the virus, knowing that it originated in China would be helpful at the outset, but useless once that infection were in my own country.
The scientific terms, on the other hand, convey a tremendous amount of information, letting us know that the infection is like other coronaviruses (flu, cold, SARS, MERS, etc.), that it is new, and that it affects the respiratory system.
Quite simply, using the term Chinese virus offers no benefit whatsoever; and as we have seen can be the source of a fair amount of harm.
As people of faith, we are often faced with the choice between things we have the right to do and the things we ought to do. As people who are supposed to care for the least of these, for the most vulnerable, for those who are marginalized, oppressed, and afflicted, we must ask ourselves, honestly, whether the use of a term that can bring no benefit and only cause harm is the appropriate thing to do, especially when other, more helpful terms exist.
Those of us who are Christian are called to be “doers of the word not merely hearers” (Jas 1:22). A part of that doing is also to be speakers of the word: a word that helps, a word that comforts, a word that lifts people up, and a word that shares with the world, the love and grace of the one who sent us.