The coronavirus outbreak is the first pandemic of the woke era, and as such it’s not surprising that there is a fierce debate over how to refer to it without offending against social justice.
Republican Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona lost whatever sympathy he would have garnered in certain quarters over his self-quarantine when he referred to “the Wuhan virus,” a perfectly appropriate name that has been deemed grotesque and unacceptable.
Wuhan is in China, a non-Western country, and people of color live there, so Q.E.D., calling the virus by the name of that city must be racist.
Luminaries across the left denounced Gosar. They even accused him of bringing what is technically the SARS-CoV-2 virus to our shores by misnaming it. Democratic Rep. Ted Lieu of California slammed the Republican’s reference to the Wuhan virus as “an example of the myopia that allowed it to spread in the U.S. The virus is not constrained by country or race.”
Nonetheless, the virus first became known in Wuhan, and the locked-down city has remained the epicenter of the Chinese epidemic ever since. As of mid-February, the Wuhan area accounted for 86 percent of all cases in China.
Naming a virus after the location of the outbreak that first brought it to attention is not unusual.
The West Nile virus emerged in the West Nile district of Northern Uganda in the 1930s. It is similar to the St. Louis encephalitis virus, which broke out around St. Louis, Missouri, in 1933, and the Japanese encephalitis virus that began in the 1870s.
Coxsackie in New York state, Marburg in Germany and Hendra in Australia all have viruses named after them. MERS, caused by a virus first identified in 2012, stands for Middle East respiratory syndrome, or even more offensively, the camel flu.
No one had a fainting fit over any of this, but we live in a more sensitive, and absurd, time.
The WHO issued guidelines a couple of years ago warning against naming diseases after geographic locations, or animals (swine flu, bird flu, monkey pox) or membership organizations or occupations (Legionnaires’ disease). With regard to the latest outbreak, the WHO has warned that “certain words and language may have a negative meaning for people and fuel stigmatizing attitudes.”
There is no doubt that a raging virus that got its start in China, has shut down all of Italy, and caused disruption and fear around the world may create negative associations around China. This would happen, though, regardless of the name.
Such international contention over the name of a virus or disease isn’t new. Syphilis was the Neapolitan disease, the French disease or the Polish disease, depending on who was naming it. The 1918 influenza came to be known as “the Spanish flu,” although Spaniards called it “the French flu.”
There was no good reason for naming the flu after the Spanish, though. The case of China is different. Its government tried to suppress warnings about the new coronavirus and looked the other way, giving it the room to become a national and then a global crisis.
It deserves to be connected to the virus it did more than its share to loose on the world, no matter what its foreign ministry or the sensitivity police say.
Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review. (c) 2020 by King Features Synd., Inc.