GOP congressman insists racist term for coronavirus is fine

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South Carolina Rep. Jeff Duncan insists on embracing racism even as public health experts warn that such language is dangerous and unhelpful.

A Republican congressman on Tuesday ignored health experts' warnings and went out of his way to promote a racist term for the coronavirus strain that has infected more than 113,000 people worldwide so far.

"But let's be clear about an important point: Coronavirus (COVID-19) originated in Wuhan, China," South Carolina Rep. Jeff Duncan wrote on Facebook. "Calling it what you will (COVID-19; Coronavirus; Wuhan-flu) is not racist nor will it change the origin: Wuhan, China."

Duncan, a former banker and real estate marketer with no formal medical training, blamed the media for identifying "another issue to divide us," claiming that using appropriate language to describe a global health pandemic "is NOT what we should be spending our time on."

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Calling the strain of coronavirus that causes COVID-19 the "Wuhan-flu" or the "Wuhan virus," as Duncan did in his post this week, does in fact stoke racism and xenopobia, according to the World Health Organization.

What a disease is called "may seem like a trivial issue to some, but disease names really do matter to the people who are directly affected," Dr. Keiji Fukuda, assistant director-general for health security at the World Health Organization, said in 2015. "We've seen certain disease names provoke a backlash against members of particular religious or ethnic communities."

Duncan, who is white, is unlikely to be impacted by the type of backlash his language may encourage. However, roughly 1% of his district identifies as Asian, as do 2% of South Carolina residents.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Stigma and discrimination can occur when people associate a disease, such as COVID-19, with a population or nationality, even though not everyone in that population or from that region is specifically at risk for the disease."

Eliminating stigma is a key component in "making communities and community members resilient."

Prominent members of the Asian and Asian American community have also spoken out about the harm that can come from using racist language when referring to the outbreak.

"The best way to stop the spread of coronavirus is to wash your hands, not perpetuate racist stereotypes," Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA), chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, wrote in a Feb. 26 letter to her colleagues. "We ask for your help in spreading this message, to help stem both the public health crisis and the deeply disturbing racism targeting the Asian American community."

The Asian American Journalists Association urged anyone writing about the issue to avoid "fueling xenophobia and racism that have already emerged since the [coronavirus] outbreak," by exercising caution in how they describe the virus.

As of Wednesday morning, there were more than 1,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus first discovered in Wuhan, China, in the United States. At least 32 people have died.

Asians and Asian Americans in the United States have faced increased and targeted discrimination since the COVID-19 outbreak began.

Two Asian men were denied a room at a hotel in Indiana last month after the clerk claimed "there is a coronavirus going around" and claimed that anyone from China "has to be picked up and quarantined for two weeks." There is no policy in the United States that requires Asians or Asian Americans to be "quarantined for two weeks."

That same month, a man on the Los Angeles subway harassed a Thai American woman he presumably believed to be Chinese, making racist comments about how "every disease has ever came from China," and falsely claiming, "Everything comes from China because they're fucking disgusting," CNN reported.

Duncan is not the only Republican embracing racism amid the outbreak. On Tuesday, avowed white nationalist Rep. Steve King (R-IA) wrote on Facebook that "the first three cases of China's coronavirus in Iowa," have been identified. King later referred to the strain of the coronavirus as the "Wuhan Virus."

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have also used racist terms when referring to the outbreak, with McCarthy dubbing the virus "Chinese coronavirus" in a tweet about CDC prevention guidelines.

In a Wednesday email, Chu expressed frustration at actions by members like McCarthy and Duncan.

"The very same CDC website that Kevin McCarthy directed people to warns against this kind of stigma specifically because of the risk it creates," Chu said.

"So the question to my Republican colleagues," she continued, "is why are they so intent on ignoring the advice of health experts, why do they ignore the pleas from the Asian American community, and why do they choose to create more division and xenophobia at a time when we should be coming together to address this pandemic?"

Donald Trump, who has a long history of making racist comments, has not made any attempt to address growing discrimination as the COVID-19 outbreak worsens.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.