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Foreign Policy

Behind the ‘China Virus’ rhetoric

Apr 03 , 2020
  • Zhou Xiaoming

    Former Deputy Permanent Representative of China’s Mission to the UN Office in Geneva

What’s in a name? It meant nothing to the female protagonist in Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

“That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” Juliet told her lover.

However, a name seems critically important to the president of the United States, Donald J. Trump, when it comes to naming the novel coronavirus, which was first reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan, Hubei province.

The World Health Organization, the global authority for disease names, called the pneumonia caused by the novel coronavirus COVID-19 on Feb. 11, under guidelines developed earlier by the World Organization for Animal Health and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. 

Washington was apparently receptive — until recently — to the choice.

U.S. politicians raised no objections to the naming of H1N1 — the bird flu that originated in the U.S. in 2009. That virus took hundreds of thousands of lives worldwide during the first year it circulated, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. It’s doubtful the j politicians would have gone along with the WHO calling it the “U.S. virus,” the “Uncle Sam virus” or the “North America virus” — names associated with the place where it first emerged.

This time around, however, circumstances are different. “It comes from China,” Trump intoned in a recent news conference. Despite the WHO’s guidance against using geographic locations when naming illnesses to avoid unfairly stigmatizing certain communities, Trump insisted on calling it the “China virus” and the “Chinese virus.”

Is the name innocuous? No.

As the spread of COVID-19 accelerates in the U.S. (the the number of confirmed cases rocketed from 4,000 to more than 69,000 in just 10 days between March 16 and 26), the U.S.is likely to replace Italy as the epicenter of the global pandemic.

The outbreak triggered a stock market crash in the U.S. that featured an unprecedented four meltdowns in just two weeks, wiping out all the gains since Trump took office more than three years ago. The U.S. economy seems primed for depression. The Institute of International Finance expects the U.S. economy to shrink by 4.8 percent this year.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has come under severe fire for its slow response to the pandemic.   

All this threatens Trump’s re-election chances. He desperately needs a scapegoat for his failed response to the outbreak. Calling COVID-19 the China virus enables him to blame his botched handling of the crisis on external factors and shift public resentment over their miseries onto China. The choice of words was deliberate, designed to shift blame away from the White House.

Trump the marketer believes names are crucial, that they affect perceptions about what things really are. It has reportedly pushed to include the phrase “Wuhan virus” in the recent G7 joint statement of foreign ministers, and tried to force the UN to officially blame China for the pandemic — though all in vain. 

Attempting to justify the claim that China created the global pandemic, U.S. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien accused China of costing the world valuable time. Trump himself told reporters: “I wish they’d told us earlier.”

The fact is, however, that since Jan. 3 China has communicated regularly with the international community — including the U.S. — sharing information on matters such as the development of the epidemic in China and the country’s prevention and control measures. Countries such as South Korea and Singapore have taken advantage of the information and time that China bought through huge sacrifices and have largely succeeded in stemming the spread of the virus. The U.S., however, “lost an opportunity,” according to Tikki Pangestu, a former director of research policy at the WHO, even though “they had two months from what happened in China.”

As evidence of the lethargy and ineptitude of the Trump administration, South Korea had tested more than 290,000 people by March 17, according to Reuters. In stark contrast, the U.S., where the first case was detected on the same date as South Korea, had conducted only 60,000 tests in a country whose population is approximately six times that of the latter. 

Commenting on Trump’s statement suggesting that China could have revealed the discovery of the coronavirus three to four months earlier, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said, “It doesn’t comport, because two or three months earlier would have been September.”

There is a certain political utility in names in the U.S. domestic context. “China virus” and similar references are seen by the Trump administration as valuable tools in the effort to contain China’s rise, some commentators suggest. By establishing a link between the pandemic and China, Washington hopes to hold China accountable for the human suffering and economic loss that the virus has caused around the world. In that way, resentment of China would be stoked, and a wedge would be driven between China and other countries.

Recently, a Republican senator asserted that China should be held responsible for the coronavirus, and demanded that it “pay damages to the USA and the world.” A lawsuit against China was also reportedly filed in federal court, seeking damages for the lost incomes and profits of 32 million American businesses. Absurd as these actions are, the Trump administration hopes they are a harbinger of things to come.

The world at large, however, including the great majority of Americans, is more sensible and empathic. They are fully aware that infectious diseases like COVID-19 could emerge anywhere in the world, and that often it is the country where the outbreak first erupts that bears the brunt of the suffering and sacrifice.

Further, they appreciate the support and help China is providing to the rest of the world. While fighting to get the virus off its back, China has been doing everything in its power to help other nations by providing expert advice, medical supplies and medical personnel.   

The dire situation on the ground calls for closer global collaboration — and especially for the world’s two largest economies to come together. As German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas put it, “We will only defeat this virus together, not against each other.”

In the battle against the common enemy of mankind, all countries, regardless of ideology, political system or culture, are comrades in arms in the same trench. Blaming each other will only cost precious time and undermine efforts to combat the disease. 

In this context, the Trump administration’s ploy to turn the global health crisis into political and geopolitical gains may backfire. Viewed as immoral and irresponsible, it has drawn intense criticism at home and abroad. CDC Director Robert Redfield  said  that using the term China virus was “absolutely wrong.”

Across the Atlantic, Josep Borrell Fontelles, the European Union’s senior representative for foreign affairs and security policy, said that stigmatizing China amounts not only to racial discrimination but also toys with people’s lives. 

For his part, Trump told Fox News on Tuesday that he had decided to stop calling COVID-19 the China virus.

The move would be better interpreted as an exercise in damage control. Trump’s politicization of the disease and passivity toward other nations has caused significant harm to the image of the U.S. and its standing as a global leader. Wanting to avoid further damage to the U.S. reputation, Trump has finally come to realize that his labeling could be a self-inflicted wound in the presidential election.

In the same interview, Trump maintained that the virus “came from China,” paying no heed to China’s call for scientists to determine its origin. He also claimed that his name-calling was a response to Chinese provocations. But that contradicts the sequence of events. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo began using the term “Wuhan virus” on March 6. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian first questioned the Chinese origin of the virus on March 12.

At a time when the world is calling on China and the U.S. to work together against the pandemic, one hopes the Trump administration might step back from its belligerence and hostility toward China and show more sincerity in cooperating with it and rest of the world.

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