All anybody can talk about, even think about, is coronavirus, COVID 19, the novel disease that has overwhelmed the world and brought human interaction to a hard stop. Calling it “the Chinese virus” only worsens the situation. Regardless of whether it is deemed “racist,” the persistent use of the term even after protests, is problematic. It only harms our efforts to control the spread of illness by adding animosity to the air.
The exact intention is irrelevant. In our daily communications, any language can be positive or negative depending on the context. “Oh, I love you,” exclaimed to a stranger who does you a favor unexpectedly is not the same in meaning as the utterance to one’s spouse even if the sentence is the same.
In laboratories, scientists performing research in fact have labeled pandemics by the origin and the year. “The Spanish flu” of a century ago probably was a misnomer. People still defend “Jap” as an abbreviation, and it undoubtedly was introduced as such in newspaper headlines. Yet it would be difficult to deny it took on derogatory connotations.
Only within our lifetimes has the cultural understanding of medical conditions become more accepting. For much of human history, the assumption, sometimes explicit, other times merely implicit, was that individuals became sick because they deserved to be punished by fate or by God. Cancer was associated with moral stigma. A community that was stricken was all the more wicked, as when AIDS was a mystery identified with “homosexuals” and Haitians.
Asians, especially Chinese, have faced a history in America of being described as dirty, the source of contagion. In San Francisco before the 1906 earthquake, for example, the bubonic plague outbreak was attributed to Chinese immigrants. The characterization of Chinese as filthy, living in a squalid Chinatown, as if they had chosen hyper segregation, was used in turn to justify continuing exclusion and further discrimination.
No matter how assim
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