• First published in 2004 as Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion (BNOR).

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The Sun Defends “Chinese Virus” as Term for Coronavirus

From an editorial at the Sun:

WHAT else is China lying about?

Its official Wuhan death toll has been raised by 50 per cent.

…The World Health Organisation swallowed every line and worked as Beijing’s PR agents.

Meanwhile lefties here scream “racist” at anyone calling this horrific, ruinous disease — let loose in China, covered up by China, killing thousands in China — the “Chinese virus”.

It is hard to be lectured about “Beijing’s PR agents” by the flagship tabloid of a media conglomerate that infamously attempted to censor Chris Patten’s book about his time as governor of Hong Kong for the benefit of Rupert Murdoch’s then-business strategy (abandoned in 2013). However, here I am more concerned with the paper’s expression of support for Trump’s sporadic efforts to establish “Chinese virus” as the common name for Covid-19.

This strikes me as a bad idea, for several fairly obvious reasons that I will nevertheless list.

First, the word “coronavirus” was unusual enough to enter the language as the popular name for the pathogen and the illness. This is less than ideal, as it is a generic name for a whole class of viruses, but that’s also the case with “Chinese virus”. The scientific term “Covid-19” is perfectly serviceable term for anyone who wishes to be more precise, whether referring to the illness itself or to the pathogen SARS-CoV-2 as “the Covid-19 coronavirus”. The term “Wuhan virus” might have caught on naturally, but it didn’t. There were of course early reports that referred to “the Chinese coronavirus”, but that was as a general descriptor before we had a proper name.

Second, during a pandemic clear messaging is particularly important. Attempting to impose a new popular name at this point may lead to needless confusion.

Third, “Chinese virus” is an ideological top-down attempt to manipulate common usage for political reasons. Trump of course wants every reference to coronavirus to be a reminder of the Chinese government’s undoubted corruption and failure, but this is to distract from his own failings rather than as a matter of principle. Trump has even gone so far as to reject the news that many cases in the USA arrived via Europe rather than directly from China, falsely suggesting that this is “fake news” concocted by the New York Times to win favour from China after the paper’s journalists were expelled (or “thrown out of China like dogs”, in Trump’s own formulation).

And fourth, of course, there is the risk that “Chinese virus” will needlessly stigmatise East Asians living in the west. This point can be made without the need to “scream ‘racist'”. Other locations that have given their names to diseases are hardly comparable: Ebola and Lyme are nouns rather than ethnic/national adjectives, and they refer to circumscribed places that are otherwise barely known. “Spanish flu” is the most famous example of a national adjective being used to identify an illness, but that was a hundred years ago and the name was not adopted as a self-consciously polemical device against Spain.

The Sun‘s question “What else is China lying about?” refers to the “lab escape” theory of the origin of the virus, which I have discussed in relation to the Mail on Sunday here.