We are living in bizarre times.
Our year began with the catastrophic Australian bushfires and now a novel coronavirus wreaks havoc across the planet. This virus knows no borders, no nationalities, is gender-neutral and can affect anyone.
If the escalation of the illness has taught us anything, it is that we are a single human race. We are connected. There are no boundaries. We are in it together and it looks like we will only get out of it by joining forces as a species.
At a recent press conference and on his Twitter feed, U.S. President Trump referred to the virus as the ‘Chinese Virus’. Why? Because “it came from China”, he said. Well, Mr. President, the virus has a perfectly good name, given to it by the International Committee of Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV) on 11 February 2020 and it is COVID-19.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), diseases are named to “enable discussion on disease prevention, spread, transmissibility, severity, and treatment" 1. The WHO warned against linking the virus to a specific area or group, due to the risk of stigmatisation. They deliberately removed ‘SARS’ from the name, even with the virus causing severe acute respiratory coronavirus disease (SARS-CoV-2). This was done to avoid igniting panic and fear in communities already deeply affected by the SARS outbreak in 2003.
Labels matter. Language matters. Words matter.
That a world leader would attribute a nationality to the virus and deliberately refuse to call it by its official name is irresponsible, divisive and racist.
Nationalising the virus is placing blame and undermining a mutual sense of responsibility and connectedness needed to survive this human crisis.
I am further disappointed to see Trump’s actions repeated by some, including Australian Senator Pauline Hanson, who penned a full statement in an effort to ‘call out China’ and show support of the designation ‘Chinese Virus’.
Asian-Americans took to social media following Trump’s tweets speaking of their fear as they are now targets of racial abuse and vilification. Any person who presents physically as having an Asian cultural identity or background is now fair game. In Australia, there have been reports of discrimination and abuse towards people of Asian appearance. A new hashtag #iamnotavirus has emerged on social media where people are calling out racist abuse online.
Most people are sensible enough to know that calling COVID-19 the ‘Chinese Virus’ or ‘Kung-Flu’ which is another awful term I have heard, is wrong but it only takes a minority of people to act on their worst instincts to create a racially intolerant environment.
Even in Australia, some journalists have gotten onto the ‘Chinese Virus’ bandwagon. People who have probably never experienced the debilitating consequences of racism and have no empathy towards people who do are being cavalier with their language and it’s not helpful.
We know from research that language matters. Speech is a form of action. Whether we like it or not, our words have consequences. They can include or exclude even if we don’t intend them to. According to DCA’s #WordsatWork guidelines, inclusive language is effective language and it is three things: respectful, relevant and accurate.
Accurate, relevant and respectful language is vital if we want to avoid perpetuating stereotypes or creating falsehoods. And it is not accurate, relevant or respectful to call COVID-19 the ‘Chinese Virus’.
A world leader who has power and influence or indeed anyone should stick to the official term and avoid divisive and racist language.
This is a time for human beings to unite, be kind and generous with one another and work together to ensure we enable our health care workers to deliver the best possible outcomes for all of us.