U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., speaks during a Congressional Field Hearing on the Affordable Care Act in Apache Junction, Ariz. Picture: AP Photo/Matt York, File
U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., speaks during a Congressional Field Hearing on the Affordable Care Act in Apache Junction, Ariz. Picture: AP Photo/Matt York, File

GOP congressman's tweet citing 'Wuhan Virus' sparks debate over racism

By Antonia Noori Farzan Time of article published Mar 9, 2020

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On Sunday night, Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., announced he would self-quarantine after having "sustained contact" with a Conservative Political Action Conference attendee who has tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

Many praised the controversial Arizona congressman who, along with Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, is one of two members of Congress in isolation, for taking precautionary measures despite not showing any symptoms. But many more objected to his choice of words: On his personal Twitter account, Gosar called covid-19 "the Wuhan Virus."

"While I appreciate you self-quarantining and making a responsible decision, you don't need to throw out dog whistle racist terms while you do it," said one typical response.

After the disease caused by coronavirus was first detected in December in Wuhan, China, many media outlets, including The Washington Post, referred to it as the "Wuhan virus." In February, the World Health Organization named the illness covid-19, an appellation chosen deliberately so that it wouldn't stigmatize a specific place or group of people.

Though the virus has spread far beyond Wuhan, some U.S. officials are still clinging to the old nickname. Last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo raised eyebrows by referring to the "Wuhan virus" after China's foreign ministry called it "highly irresponsible" to do so. When Gosar followed suit on Sunday night, he was quickly labeled racist and xenophobic.

"I will pray for you, your staff & the person hospitalized," responded Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif. "Also, calling #COVID-19 the Wuhan Virus is an example of the myopia that allowed it to spread in the US. The virus is not constrained by country or race. Be just as stupid to call it the Milan Virus."

The official statement released by Gosar's office on Sunday used the term "covid-19," and spokesman Ben Goldey told The Post that the congressman's decision to call it the "Wuhan virus" in a tweet from his personal account "did not have some sinister undertone or meaning." Meanwhile, conservative commentators have aggressively defended the nickname by pointing out that it was widely used in media coverage until about a month ago.

As Goldey pointed out in an email to The Post, there's a long history of naming diseases after the place where they were discovered. Ebola was first detected in a village in the Congo that's near the Ebola River. Researchers studying mosquitoes in Uganda's Zika Forest were the first to identify the Zika virus. The first people to show symptoms of Lyme disease were clustered around Lyme, Connecticut.

But public health officials are increasingly concerned that this naming convention can have devastating economic consequences, and lead to discrimination against people who are perceived as disease carriers because of their race or ethnicity.

"Now we have a much different sensibility and tolerance about how we refer to things," Howard Markel, a medical historian at the University of Michigan, told the Associated Press last month.

In 2015, the WHO issued new protocols for naming diseases. The updated guidelines prohibit any references to geographic locations and animals ("bird flu") or groups of people ("Legionnaires' disease.")

"We've seen certain disease names provoke a backlash against members of particular religious or ethnic communities, create unjustified barriers to travel, commerce and trade, and trigger needless slaughtering of food animals," said Keiji Fukuda, then the WHO's assistant director-general for health security. "This can have serious consequences for people's lives and livelihoods."

After the coronavirus outbreak began in December, it took weeks for the WHO to find a name that would adhere to the new criteria, and also be easy to pronounce. In the meantime, the agency suggested using "2019-nCoV" as a temporary stand-in.

"I'm sure you have seen many media reports that are still calling this, using the name Wuhan or using China," WHO epidemiologist Maria van Kerkhove explained, according to Reuters. "We wanted to ensure that there was no stigma associated with this virus, and so we've put out this interim name."

On Feb. 11, the WHO settled on covid-19. But during a news conference and appearances on CNBC and Fox News last week, Pompeo repeatedly referred to the disease as "the Wuhan virus" and "the Wuhan coronavirus."

Gosar used similar terminology on Sunday, when he announced he and three senior staffers had extended contact with an individual who tested positive for covid-19 after attending CPAC last month. Some critics speculated the Republican congressman was trying to deflect attention from the Trump administration's mishandling of the crisis by directing the blame at China.

Goldey denied any ill intent, telling The Post, "Nobody is assigning 'blame' to any person or people group, the focus is responding to the virus and ensuring the health and safety of Americans." Like many of Gosar's defenders, he noted there are numerous examples of media outlets using the term "Wuhan virus." (Most of those examples date from January and early February, and the U.S. media appears to have abandoned the nickname after the WHO officially named the disease "covid-19.")

"Ignore the snowflake Leftists who think everything is racist," Gosar wrote on Sunday night. "It's a virus. It doesn't care about your race."

Meanwhile, late Sunday night, #CPACVirus began trending on Twitter.

"Yes, we're sorry @DrPaulGosar, but if you refuse to use the medical terms and insist on using a place to describe the virus, then "Wuhan Virus" - which I'm sure you didn't pick to be racist! - won't work," wrote attorney Max Kennerly. "We can't trace your outbreak's source that way. No, you have 'CPAC Virus.'"

The Washington Post

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