The Effects of Word Choice in a Pandemic

Amy Liu, Staff Writer

Even in a pandemic, one thing remains constant: Twitter. In recent weeks, people have increasingly turned to the ever-popular social media site as a source of information on the coronavirus that has spread across the world. But its fast-moving pace and visibility may have unforeseen consequences. President Trump’s recent tweets, in which he calls COVID-19 the “Chinese virus”, have sparked backlash across the site, and rightfully so. In a crisis, something as simple as word choice has immense power for help and harm.

The official name of the coronavirus, COVID-19, can be broken down into several parts.
“CO” stands for corona, “VI” for virus, and “D” for disease, while “-19” signifies the year of its emergence and discovery, according to UNICEF. The acronym, which replaced the initial name of 2019-nCOV, was created by the World Health Organization to provide a shortened and easier way of referring to the disease. In statements, the WHO stressed that references to COVID-19 should be free of potentially stigmatizing language due to the multitude of negative effects it could cause. 

In a recent press conference, President Trump defended his use of “Chinese virus” as the primary descriptor of COVID-19 while continuing to refer to the coronavirus as such, despite warnings from global organizations against such wording. When pressed about it, he responded that it was “not racist at all” and that “it comes from China, that’s why.” The President also stated that he “didn’t appreciate the fact that China was saying that our military gave it to them” in his defense for continuing to call COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” after widening criticism. In another incident, a White House official referred to COVID-19 as the “Kung flu” to CBS News reporter, Weijia Jiang.

While defense of such language centers around ideas that it is reactionary and will not have harmful effects due to its intention, statistics and trends prove otherwise. Xenophobia towards Asian-Americans has grown significantly over the course of the past year, falling in line with the virus’ spread. According to a report from San Francisco State University, there were over 1,000 reported incidents of xenophobia towards Chinese-Americans and their communities within a one-month period alone — in other words, around 37 new incidents per day. In a CNN article published in late February, several examples of Asian-American xenophobia (including subway station beatings, harassment, and an 80% decline in business at Asian-American restaurants prior to the virus’s active spread in the United States) were listed as part of a broader wave of incidents that share the common thread of fear and prejudice. 

Stigmatizing language will only worsen the already widespread xenophobia, and certainly will undo any progress made in disassociating “Asian” from “coronavirus”. It also has unforeseen consequences. According to the WHO, stigmatized communities that are negatively impacted by inappropriate language regarding COVID-19 are less likely to seek help, testing, and treatment, which can harm efforts to contain the virus and aid its victims.

Calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” is a dangerous addition of fuel onto a fire that is already burning. The coronavirus has no affiliation to any country or region, and its global spread demonstrates that it does not discriminate in its effects. Racist and stigmatizing rhetoric detracts from the primary goal at hand — defeating the COVID-19 pandemic through appropriate public efforts, rigorous testing, and effective treatment — and sows fear and division throughout communities. Constructive word choice, however, goes a long way in restoring unity to communities, and can have a powerfully positive impact on the fight against COVID-19.