Conservatives Try to Rebrand the Coronavirus

Author and Professor of Science Writing Tom Levenson writes in The Atlantic that the non-scientific term "Wuhan virus" was intended to label Covid-19 as a Chinese scourge — ignoring, and stirring up, an ugly history.


Thomas Levenson; photo by Joel Benjamin

"As in 1900, to insist on a geographic definition of disease today is to locate responsibility somewhere other than here." 

— Thomas Levenson, professor of science writing and director of the MIT-SHASS Graduate Program in Science Writing

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"Scientists are using the internationally accepted name Covid-19 to describe the disease caused by the novel coronavirus that was discovered late last year. But a number of prominent conservatives—including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas—are going with Wuhan virus, as if the deadly new pathogen were one more scourge to be blamed on the Chinese. As many of the responses to Gosar on Twitter pointed out, this kind of rhetoric invites the public to see a global epidemic in racial or (at best) geopolitical terms.

"Defenders of the term countered both that the virus did appear first in a real place called Wuhan, and that many diseases are named after the site of a first or famous outbreak. That’s true of the viral hemorrhagic infections Ebola and Marburg, tick-borne Lyme disease, and others. But the geographic defense has to be weighed against the rhetoric that says out loud what locating the current threat to Wuhan only implies.

"In the past five years, Donald Trump has explicitly promoted the notion that foreigners carry contagion. In 2015 he proclaimed that Mexicans were to blame for 'tremendous infectious disease … pouring across the border,' a charge he has repeated as president. Meanwhile, the deliberate cultivation of fears of infectious disease from China has a long, nasty history in the United States—one that even today’s bitter partisans should be willing to acknowledge."

Full commentary at The Atantic


Suggested links

Tom Levenson's writings at The Atlantic

Levenson's MIT webpage

MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing