To preface this, I'm not a supporter of Trump, but I disagree with the way some major media outlets have criticized him over his nickname for COVID-19, the "Chinese virus". In addition, it is not only those outlets, but other governmental organizations like the WHO that have advised against dubbing COVID-19 in such a manner.

In the past we have had cases where a widespread global epidemic has also been referred to other countries or nationalities, such as:

In any case, is the media backlash over Trump's nickname for COVID-19 justifiably warranted? Is there a problem in the way COVID-19 has been nicknamed?

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    What is the connection to politics? The English Language site is probably a better fit for this question. Commented Mar 21, 2020 at 3:14
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    @BjörnLindqvist I'm not asking for etymology. It would not be on-topic to ask why media considers such a phrase offensive, at least in English.SE.
    – yuritsuki
    Commented Mar 21, 2020 at 4:03
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    @BjörnLindqvist It is clearly connected to politics since Trump is a prominent political figure. Already provided answers show that it can be answered quite nicely.
    – Alexei
    Commented Mar 22, 2020 at 5:43
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    I take issue with your use of the term "progressive media" in your question. You automatically introduce a bias by doing this, suggesting that news outlets which publish articles in which, say, experts in public policy are quoted explaining why the use of such a term can be dangerous, are doing so as part of carrying out some kind of political agenda. Commented Mar 23, 2020 at 3:46
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    Downvoted. I have no love for the Orange POTUS, but even I feel this question is an ad hominen on his person. Also, the question being Why we don't do X anymore if people did X just fine in the past? is too trivial and not a political one. You can replace X with cutting off a thief's hands or tossing bound people in the river as a trial or thinking that behavior N was a disease. Commented Mar 23, 2020 at 11:19

9 Answers 9


Let's appreciate the learning curve. The problem with all of those historical names is that they created sharp spikes in prejudice, social ostracism, and violence against the indicated groups, and still create issues today as seen here with COVID-19. It's true that the first identified cases of Covid-19 occurred in Wuhan China, but this does not imply that people of Chinese descent — or even people recently emigrated from China — are vectors for the disease, or in any way responsible for the problems that the disease causes. But in the minds of an unfortunate number of ignorant people, the mere association of the disease with Chinese heritage can produce verbal and physical assaults, and/or other social pressures that can prevent Chinese people in any walk of life from getting access to necessities or essential services.

Trump's very public insistence on calling this the 'Chinese virus', backed by his status as president, is guaranteed to significantly increase acts of discrimination and assault on people of Asian descent (whether or not they are specifically Chinese). It guarantees this merely by giving an authoritative affirmation to the most panicked, emotional, and ignorant portion of our society that those 'Chinese' are in some way responsible for the spread of Covid-19.

No doubt Trump does this intentionally. Trump thrives on the panicked, angry ignorance of others; that emotional state he knows how to manipulate to his own profit. And while he himself may not be concerned with the secondary impact of increased violence against people of Asian descent, people of Asian descent have a good deal to worry about.

A president ought to have the presence of mind not to inflame racial tensions in a situation where tensions are already running exceedingly high. Even if we wanted to argue that there is nothing terribly wrong with the phrasing in and of itself — that it's just a poor choice of words by a man whom no one considers to be eloquent, perhaps — misstatements by someone who is (ostensibly) the leader of the free world have significant consequences. If even one Asian American gets attacked because of someone emboldened by Trump's poor word choice, that is blood on Trump's hands.

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    While I very much like the answer, could you cite some sort of proof backing up the part where you claim that "they created sharp spikes in prejudice, social ostracism, and violence against the indicated groups"?
    – yuritsuki
    Commented Mar 21, 2020 at 7:43
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    @yuritsuki: I suggest you try the WHO documentation. This was their recommendation (from back in 2015), and their reasoning; I have not researched it heavily (since it seems fairly commonsensical to me). I can only point at three cases: Xenophobia/racism/Covid-19, swine flu/pigs, Spanish flu/paragraph 2. People are not sensible about nomenclature. Commented Mar 21, 2020 at 15:06
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    The OP's question was "Why is the media treating this instance of naming a virus differently than others?" not "What is the problem with naming a virus after a location/place?"
    – Hasse1987
    Commented Mar 22, 2020 at 21:04
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    This answer is a mix of correlation vs causation, speculation, and assertion, which only tangentially addresses the question, while taking the opportunity to further inflame emotions. How can you fail to see the irony in writing "..."Trump's poor word choice, that is blood on Trump's hands"? Commented Mar 23, 2020 at 12:41
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    lol, to the answerer, and everyone who upvoted this, just say what you really think--you think "he's a racist" Commented Mar 23, 2020 at 23:38

If you want official criticism from the WHO of what Trump did/said:

[Question:] Dr Tedros mentioned the importance of international unity on this and I just wondered whether anyone there at WHO had comments about the US president Donald Trump's continued usage of the term, the Chinese virus, as recently as this morning to refer to COVID given that there continue to be reports of racism and xenophobic attacks against ethnic Chinese people around the world. I wondered whether you had any [inaudible] about that kind of language may hamper or distract from the international community's ability to respond [inaudible].

[Answer by Dr Michael Ryan:] Yes, I think we've been very clear right since the beginning to this event that viruses know no borders and they don't care your ethnicity, the colour of your skin or how much money you have in the bank so it's really important that we be careful in the language we use lest it lead to profiling of individuals associated with the virus. This is just something we need to all avoid. It's easy in situations to summarise or to make comments that are not intended to do that but ultimately end up having that outcome and I'm sure anyone would regret profiling a virus along an ethnic line. That's not something anybody would want. We need solidarity, we need to work together. There are many different origins; I've said it before in these press conferences; the pandemic of influenza in 2009 originated in North America and we didn't call it the North American flu so it's very important that we have the same approach when it comes to other viruses, to avoid that and we ask for that to be the intent that everybody has. This is a time for solidarity, this is a time for facts, this is a time to move forward together to fight this virus together. There is no blame in this. All that we need now is to be able to identity the things we need to do to move forward quickly with speed, with certainly and to avoid any indication of ethnic or other associations of this virus


The question assumes incorrectly that the name Spanish Flu is, or ever was, somehow OK. It's true that we use it now without much of a second thought—once a name sticks, it sticks, and the Spanish Flu pandemic is long enough in the past that its use barely stigmatizes Spanish people today. Being harmless now does not mean the name was free of undesirable, unnecessary societal effects closer to the time—effects that we would prefer to avoid, going forward. It also wasn't accurate—the Spanish Flu was not Spanish in origin—but that's irrelevant: it's important to distinguish between the strict accuracy of a name and its desirability (by which I mean, roughly, the wisdom and morality of using it, especially from a public platform).

First, accuracy: another answerer has said that today's pandemic was not "Made In China"—but let's start by making the case that it actually was. To quote Cheng et al (2007) in Clinical Microbiology Reviews, "The presence of a large reservoir of SARS-CoV-like viruses in horseshoe bats, together with the culture of eating exotic mammals in southern China, is a time bomb. The possibility of the reemergence of SARS and other novel viruses from animals or laboratories and therefore the need for preparedness should not be ignored." So, happenstance dictated that the virus evolved in China's wildlife, and you could even rest the case for the strict accuracy of the term "Chinese virus" there if you wanted. Our best understanding of the evidence is that we were then exposed to it because of a particular aspect of Chinese culture, and the Chinese authorities' failure to manage the risk, known since at least 2007, by sufficiently regulating that aspect of culture. You don't even need to try to round out this case by arguing the toss about different aspects of the Chinese authorities' handling of the 2019 outbreak. Even without that, it's accurate to say the disease had Chinese origins, just as it is accurate (and about as meaningful) to say that Ted Bundy was American. This does not mean that it's desirable or responsible to let the disease's origin story be its public moniker.

So, second, desirability: you and I know that, just because Bundy was American, that does not mean all Americans are serial killers. Modus ponens isn't rocket science, and most randomly-chosen individuals that you can talk to one-to-one understand this too—because, to quote Solomon (1997), a person is smart. But people are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it—and Donald Trump knows it too (because he is also a person, who is smart). So, when he uses the name "Chinese virus" from a public platform, he knows that it inevitably increases, in a diffuse way across the USA and beyond, the stigmatization and abuse of people with any kind of Chinese connection. That connection may be as tenuous as happening to look, in someone's uneducated opinion, like they might have had ancestors from China. The kid that gets bullied in the schoolyard might be a third-generation Korean American. The Chinese American that gets the brick thrown through her window might herself find the idea of eating pangolin disgusting, and might be critical of the Chinese government's regulatory failures surrounding it (indeed, she has chosen to live in a different country, so it wouldn't be surprising if she were critical of the Chinese government in a few other ways too). The person that gets hate graffiti sprayed on his car might even be an epidemiologist who could have prevented the whole thing if anyone had listened to him in 2007. Do we want the spray-painting and the brick-throwing and the schoolyard bullying to happen in our society, when we can take steps to minimize them? Do you, the OP, believe them to be good things? The answer of the WHO and CDC is no, we do not want those things, so let's discourage them with our naming policies. Trump's calculated public insistence on his terminology shows either that he has reasons for encouraging them, or, in the most generous interpretation, that he at least considers them an acceptable price to pay for whatever else he's achieving with this rhetoric.

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    The fact of the matter is that I assumed the usage of "Spanish flu" was ok because that is the main term being used when Wikipedia addresses it. In other cases like COVID-19, trying "Chinese virus" does not show up as a synonym.
    – yuritsuki
    Commented Mar 23, 2020 at 4:33
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    Ah, in which case that is another way in which the term is a poor one. While being descriptively technically accurate, it’s not specific enough to be a synonym for anything. (It begs the question, Which Chinese virus? There have certainly been others. In fact, to bring the whole thing full circle, China seems to be one of the three main candidates proposed by historians as possible origins of the Spanish Flu)
    – jez
    Commented Mar 23, 2020 at 6:28
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    "Modus ponens isn't rocket science" I think it might be. "If the rocket explodes, then you are not going to space today," after all.
    – nick012000
    Commented Mar 23, 2020 at 6:34
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    As for what Trump is hoping to accomplish by calling it this, I'd guess it's to reiterate that all the damage that the virus does is the fault of the Chinese government, and he shouldn't be held accountable for it when it's voting time in November.
    – nick012000
    Commented Mar 23, 2020 at 6:40
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    @yuritsuki the reasons "Spanish flu" is the accepted term for that pandemic is precisely because it was used sufficiently widely, to sufficiently little objection, by people in authority. The objections to "Chinese virus" today, especially from authorities like the WHO, are part of the history that will determine what is accepted as a name in the long term.
    – Will
    Commented Mar 23, 2020 at 12:20

From a rather old book that I read, about syphilis: "He caught the disease which in England is called the French disease, in France the Spanish disease, in Spain the German disease, and in Germany the English disease". (Not sure of the ordering, but it was a cycle of these four countries).

Yes, what Trump says is offensive. Just because lots of people in the past were offensive doesn't change that.

As far as I know, the so-called "Spanish flu" got its name through the fact that British, German, French and Italian newspapers didn't publish any numbers that were anywhere near true, but Spain did. So the number of reported victims in Spain was ten times higher than anywhere else, the number of actual victims wasn't.

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    please cite some sources.
    – qwr
    Commented Mar 23, 2020 at 1:15
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    Hans Jakob Christoffel Von Grimmelshausen, Simplicius Simplicissimus,1668.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Mar 23, 2020 at 17:29
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    It should be noted that the major combatants in WW1 suppressed news of the virus so as not to create even more morale problems with the soldiers in the field - WW1 was still ongoing when the flu broke out. Ironically, that censorship was a major contributing factor to the rapid spread.
    – tj1000
    Commented Mar 25, 2020 at 9:37
  • @qwr: or ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3956094 Commented Mar 25, 2020 at 11:12
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    @qwr: and if you're somehow unaware of the Spanish flu's known history "The influenza epidemic occurred in at least three waves, as visualized in Europe and America. The first wave appeared in the spring of 1918, in a well-documented outbreak at a military base in the farm state of Kansas." ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6218637 Commented Mar 25, 2020 at 11:32

In short? Because things descended into tribal pissing matches.

One of the things that's been forgotten is, up until about a month ago, "Wuhan Virus" was an extremely common way of referring to the virus. The term shows up in headlines and articles and op-ed pieces left and right.

For a fun exercise, put a news organization into google's search along with "Wuhan Virus" and scroll through a few pages of results. You'll find things generally split into two camps: 90% of the results are for recent articles which talk about racism/non-racism/etc of the term... and 10% of the results are for articles from Jan/Feb which use "Wuhan Virus" as the term of choice to describe the virus in a straight-forward manner.

So what happened?

Well, first the pissing match between Trump and China. China tried claiming the virus might have originated with the US Military. Which Trump took with his usual calm rational demeanor. International relations between US and China have been a bit frosty lately, and this was just another log on the fire.

Then the second pissing match between Trump and the media. If President Trump says one thing, it's awfully hard for the media to go two seconds without staking out the opposition position. So now the term "Wuhan Virus", which up until a month ago was a professional term, is full-out racist. Trump uses "Wuhan Virus" or "Chinese Virus" or such - because he's trying to be petty and needle the Chinese government. And the media then turns around and accuses him of being racist for using terms they were using up until a month ago.

Politics at its finest, basically.

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    Wuhan virus was used until about a month ago because the disease didn't get it's official name until Feb 11, 2020. Until then it was reasonable to call it a novel coronavirus from Wuhan, but once it got an official name, then almost everyone switched to calling it by its real name.
    – divibisan
    Commented Mar 23, 2020 at 17:45
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    @divibisan - It already was being called "Coronavirus" as well - it simply got the technical name "COVID-19" on Feb 11th. If it wasn't racist to call it "Wuhan Virus" before that point, it's hard to imagine it suddenly turned racist simply because it had a technical name - after all, it did have a non-geographical alternative in "Coronavirus." It's hard to argue the NYTimes/CNN/etc weren't racist in calling it "Wuhan Virus" instead of "Coronavirus", but Trump is racist in calling it "Wuhan Virus" instead of "COVID-19".
    – Kevin
    Commented Mar 23, 2020 at 18:47
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    "Wuhan" predominantly refers to a geographical location. "Chinese" predominantly refers to a group of people. You can't be racist about a place because race is a (poorly defined and scientifically unsound) trait of people, not of places. Commented Mar 23, 2020 at 22:26
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    You're missing the point. Things aren't inherently racist – it's the context that matters. If I call an unknown strain of coronavirus (note, coronavirus is a broad family of viruses, it does not specify the nCov-19 strain) that is currently spreading in Wuhan a "Chinese virus" that's a very different thing from calling a specific, named strain of virus that's currently spreading in the US (and largely contained in China) "The Chinese Virus"
    – divibisan
    Commented Mar 23, 2020 at 23:38
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    This ignores the fact that when the virus was discovered it was only located in Wuhan so it was perfectly appropriate to refer to it as a virus in Wuhan, the same is true for China. When cases started to be found in other countries the usage of these terms dropped off in favour of coronavirus or, later, covid-19. This distinction is important, at first it's an accurate geographic description, later it's used to apportion blame. It's a sneaky maneuver because everyone knows what he means but he can defend it by pointing to out of context examples of opponents saying the same thing.
    – ewanc
    Commented Mar 24, 2020 at 18:24

I think the key point here is that all of these other cases refer to an outbreak. "Chinese virus" refers to the virus. It implies that the virus was somehow "made in China" when it clearly isn't.

If Trump calls the epidemic "Chinese COVID-19 outbreak" I doubt there'd be as large a reaction.

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    To push the [non-]analogy a bit further, if someone says "Spanish virus", it wouldn't usually obvious what they mean. Of course, if context is a discussion about flu, then it might be self-explanatory, but still probably a little unusual to say it like that. Commented Mar 22, 2020 at 19:33
  • @Fizz best not to bring Spanish flu into the pool of analogies since it is widely regarded to be misleading in exactly the kinds of ways that most people choosing their terminology are now trying to avoid.
    – Will
    Commented Mar 23, 2020 at 12:12
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    This is not just an outbreak of an existing virus, though. It's a new one, hence the name novel coronavirus. As far as researches can tell at this point, it did, in fact, originate in China. Of course, that doesn't mean that the Chinese intentionally made it.
    – reirab
    Commented Mar 24, 2020 at 9:03
  • @reirab it also doesn't mean that it's good to call the virus "Chinese virus" or "Wuhan virus."
    – phoog
    Commented Mar 24, 2020 at 19:18
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    @MasonWheeler you can't have it both ways. The Spanish flu would have been much more likely to have been called the German, British, French or American flu had it not been for the efforts to suppress information in those countries. So if you think the only reason the name "Chinese virus" has not caught on is because of the efforts of the Chinese government (a naive view) you still ought to accept "COVID-19" because according to your post-hoc rationalisation the virus was not sufficiently "noticed" in China to gain that geographic association.
    – Will
    Commented Mar 25, 2020 at 11:37

Descriptively speaking, Ted's answer is basically correct, insofar as it accurately captures the kind of thinking that leads a lot of people to consider the term "Chinese virus" offensive. However, normatively speaking, the kinds of arguments Ted is putting forward aren't as strong as you might think.

It's always good to keep in mind that there's a variety of human biases constantly at work in politics. For example, the more punitive and controlling people within one's own political affiliation are often seen as unsung heroes of a worthy cause, while punitive and controlling people on the other side of politics are often viewed as jerks that need to be shut down and controlled.

I'm oversimplifying, of course.

With that said, notice that when you really look at it, Ted is basically advocating pre-emptive (before the deed) and vicarious (inflicted on a different person) punishment. In more detail, the idea is to control the way person A talks now (via e.g. social punishment) in order to prevent person B from doing something immoral later. Needless to say, this is not a good way of doing morality.

However, in the defence of people who consider this an offensive term, there is in fact a very good reason to avoid calling it the "Chinese virus".

In particular, a good way to use language in connection with controversial or emotive issues is to pick neutral words that don't presuppose your conclusion, and then, using those neutral words, build an argument in favour of your conclusion using evidence and reason.

In other words, you shouldn't choose words that presuppose your conclusion, because it's a way of evading the burden of responsibility for justifying your point-of-view.

A similar point can be made against the use of vague terms that are never defined; they might be effective at preaching to the converted, but they undermine your ability to contribute to the broader social dialogue in meaningful and positive ways.

In a nutshell then, the real problem with the phrase "Chinese virus" is that it's vague and emotive.

For example, in some ways, it really is Chinese (if we're talking about origins), for example. In other ways, it's really not (if we're talking about the relevant actual DNA sequence, for example.) And, furthermore, including "Chinese" in the name is obviously an attempt to put blame on a particular group of people. They may or may not deserve this blame, but you shouldn't choose a term that presupposes this conclusion

I therefore think it's clear that the phrase "Chinese virus" deserves criticism. And sure, the media has bad reasons for criticising it; yet it deserves criticism nonetheless.

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    Based on what he has said in some of the press conferences, Trump's intent may in fact be to put blame on the Chinese government for downplaying the seriousness of the outbreak back in December and January. Suppression of information by the Chinese government likely prevented other countries from being able to stockpile medical supplies, prepare testing infrastructure, and pass financial measures prior to the virus reaching their countries.
    – user4574
    Commented Mar 23, 2020 at 2:13
  • @user4574 that may be Trump's intent, but it's not the principal effect.
    – phoog
    Commented Mar 23, 2020 at 16:03

Society has mostly become more enlightened over time. Many practices that were common in the past are now considered anywhere from inadvisable to offensive to totally taboo. And even though racism and xenophobia have not been eradicated, overt expressions of it are generally avoided.

Language is a huge component of this progression. Many names for medical conditions have evolved from descriptions, many of which had negative overtones, to technical terms or less offensive names. We don't call people "retarded" or "dumb", they're "developmentally disabled".

For this reason, Trump's use of the term "Chinese virus" stands out as being remarkably archaic, displaying little empathy with the people he refers to. Everyone else around him says "coronavirus" or "COVID-19", but he insists on identifying it with a specific group of people. This is not the language of the modern world, it's something we might expect if someone came to us in a time machine from a century or more ago, a less enlightened time.

Wikipedia has a summary of the recent increase in incidents of racism and xenophobia against Chinese and Asian people. While it can't be proven to be causative, it would be hard to believe that Trump's language plays no part in this.

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    It looks like that article is mostly focused on describing events in China - which IIRC at the time is where most of the cases were as well and it wasn't yet so much of a worldwide issue, plus there was no other name yet. Using it now it's much more like you are just playing the blame game, which isn't productive.
    – Ella
    Commented Mar 23, 2020 at 20:12

As OP and other answers suggest this is a kind of "Black Peter" game.

It seems human to show with the fingers on others and in the middle age the Jews have been the scapegoat who should have poisoned the fountains ...

And the Swine flu must have been the Mexican flu in Trumps perspective.

It is true that in the past the flues and pandemics have been named after the region or the animals from where it started spreading. To prevent such prejudices and discrimination the WHO proposes to give a neutral name. (Mind that in Italy Chinese children are called "Corona" and people with an Asian face have been attacked and knocked down with a bottle!)

This new labeling covid-19 is an expression of political correctness.

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