A virus by any other name…

March 26, 2020 08:00
Medical workers from outside Wuhan pose for pictures with a Chinese Communist Party flag at the Wuhan railway station before leaving the city on March 17. China and the US have been engaging in a war or words in relation to the Covid-19 outbreak. Photo: R

What's in a name? Very little or a lot. It depends on the name and who you ask. William Shakespeare’s Juliet didn’t think names mattered when she said to her lover Romeo: “What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Romeo and Juliet is a tragic story about two lovers from feuding clans with different family names. More than four centuries after Shakespeare wrote his classic play, the name of a virus causing global tragedy is also the source of hate, racism, and a Cold War-like clash between the world’s two economic titans.

I so wish the fictitious Juliet were here today. She would wag her finger at our 21st century world and sternly say: “What’s in a name? A killer virus by any other name would still kill”. But alas, she cannot help us. We have to help ourselves.

Does it really matter what people call the virus now sweeping the world that has infected hundreds of thousands and already killed more than 18,000? When it first emerged in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province, late last year, we called it the Wuhan virus for easy identification. This name evolved to become the nova coronavirus after it spilled out of Wuhan to Hubei and later to the rest of China.

In 2015, the World Health Organization chose to be politically correct rather than accurate. It decided infectious diseases should no longer be named after countries or regions where they originated to avoid stigma. That’s why the Wuhan virus is officially called Covid-19, a meaningless name to most ordinary people.

One of Hong Kong’s top microbiologists, Professor Yuen Kwok-yung, co-authored a newspaper article with his colleague insisting it was totally fine for ordinary people to call it the Wuhan virus because it originated there. They said the mainland Chinese habit of eating wildlife spawned the virus and it was a joke for Chinese officials to claim the US military brought the virus to China.

Truth-telling can be hazardous in Hong Kong, a city with eroding freedoms that is part of an authoritarian regime. A merciless onslaught by China loyalists forced Yuen to withdraw the article. He went on mainland TV to declare himself a patriot.

So much for Hong Kong’s media freedom, which Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor insists still exists. A tit-for-tat expulsion of journalists between the US and China struck at the heart of Hong Kong’s media freedom last week when Beijing made clear a dozen US journalists it ordered out would not even be allowed to work in Hong Kong. Commerce Secretary Edward Yau Tang-wah gave his usual wishy-washy answer when asked if that violated one country, two systems.

Prof Yuen had no choice but to be politically correct on mainland TV where he said no one loves China more than he does. US President Donald Trump doesn’t give a damn about political correctness. He proved that again last week by repeatedly calling Covid-19 the Chinese virus after mainland foreign ministry official Zhao Lijian tweeted his unproven claim that the virus started in the US.

It amuses me to see Chinese officials and diplomats using Twitter to globally spread their propaganda when Twitter is banned in China. Why don’t they use Weibo so their own people can see their propaganda too?

In June 1987, the late US president Ronald Reagan called on the former Soviet Union to “tear down this wall” in reference to the Berlin Wall that separated West and East Berlin. I call on Zhao and other mainland officials who use Twitter to “tear down the firewall” that shuts the mainland’s internet from the outside world. A regime afraid of its own people knowing the truth has no legitimacy.

Trump calling the coronavirus the Chinese virus infuriated Chinese Americans, who feared hate crimes against them. I sympathize and understand but cannot understand why Chinese Americans were not likewise infuriated when Zhou claimed the virus came from the US. Chinese Americans are quick to criticize their own president but refrain from criticizing China’s excesses, such as Xi Jinping’s internment of a million Uyghurs. When push comes to shove, they have to decide where their loyalties lie.

Political correctness whitewashes the truth. That’s why I have never believed in it. The coronavirus started in Wuhan, as Prof Yuen said, plain and simple. Ordinary people understand Wuhan virus, not Covid-19. If the WHO wants to be politically correct, especially after its head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus cozied up to Xi in Beijing when the virus first struck, then it should give equal treatment to other infectious diseases too.

The WHO should immediately rename Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, otherwise known as MERS, and Ebola. Both are named after regions – the Middle East and Africa. Please note both were named when the China-backed Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun was the WHO head.

If China finds it so offensive for Trump to call the new virus the Chinese virus, Chan should campaign to rename MERS and Ebola. Better late than never. An infectious disease by any other name would still kill but if we are not allowed to stigmatize China for political reasons, we should also not stigmatize the Middle East and Africa. Let’s choose fairness over double standards.

– Contact us at [email protected]


A Hong Kong-born American citizen who has worked for many years as a journalist in Hong Kong, the USA and London.