UNITED NATIONS - When US President Donald Trump repeatedly characterized the fast-spreading COVID-19 as a “Chinese virus” last week, it prompted some white supremacists to resurrect an age old ethnic slur against Chinese and East Asians: the “Yellow Peril” which, in a bygone era, was touted as a xenophobic threat to the Western world.

But Tendayi Achiume, UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination and Xenophobia, is highly critical of the racist interpretation to a disease which has claimed over 16,500 deaths worldwide and accounted for more than 378,000 infections, with the epicenter shifting from China to Europe.

Singling out Trump, she said: it’s dismaying, however, “to witness State officials—including the President of the United States—adopting alternative names for the COVID-19 coronavirus”.

“Instead of using the internationally recognized name of the virus, these officials have adopted names with geographic references, typically referring to its emergence in China,” said Achiume, who is Assistant Professor of Law at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Law.

“This sort of calculated use of a geographic-based name for this virus is rooted in, and fosters, racism and xenophobia. In this case, it serves to isolate and stigmatize individuals who are, or are perceived to be, of Chinese or other East Asian descent”, she added.

Meanwhile, white supremacist groups in the US have justified the label, mostly in Facebook postings, by arguing that if diseases like German measles (1814), Spanish flu (1918) and Lyme disease (1975), are widely accepted, why not a “Chinese virus”?

Asked for her response, Achiume told IPS it’s disingenuous to try and make this an issue of semantics, where defenders of racialized disease-names point to historical examples of related naming practices.

“We have individuals today who are being attacked and abused on racial and ethnic grounds, in part because their attackers are emboldened by xenophobic leaders stoking intolerance on the basis of national origin”.

She said this is not a time for semantics.

“We are facing a global pandemic that requires leaders to defend and protect the dignity of all people, irrespective of race or ethnicity”, declared Achiume, who is also a research associate of the African Center for Migration and Society at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa.

According to the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), one of the primary TV channels in the US, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has, in an intelligence briefing last month, revealed plans involving white supremacist groups allegedly attempting to “weaponize the coronavirus” to attack non-whites and minorities—through infected saliva, spray bottles and laced items.

And in a report on Yahoo News, Hunter Walker and Jana Winter write: “Violent extremists continue to make bioterrorism a popular topic among themselves,” reads the intelligence brief written by the Federal Protective Service, which covered the week of Feb. 17-24.

“White Racially Motivated Violent Extremists have recently commented on the coronavirus, stating that it is an ‘OBLIGATION’ to spread it, should any of them contract the virus.”

Matthew Lee, a health policy researcher and a doctoral candidate in sociomedical sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, points out that during disease outbreaks, attacks on marginalized groups are not an exception, but the norm.

This racism and xenophobia are additionally stoked by discourse that casts the bodies and behaviors of Chinese Americans and other Asian Americans as suspicious, and even at fault, for spreading disease, he noted.

“While viruses and other pathogens do not discriminate between hosts based on race, ethnicity, nationality or immigration status — stigma and misinformation certainly do,” Lee added.

Achiume said irresponsible, discriminatory State rhetoric is no minor issue.

As noted by the World Health Organization in 2015: ‘disease names really do matter to the people who are directly affected … certain disease names provoke a backlash against members of particular religious or ethnic communities … This can have serious consequences for peoples’ lives and livelihoods’.

“These consequences have already become a reality. Over the past two months, people who are perceived or known to be of Chinese or other East Asian descent have been subject to racist and xenophobic attacks related to the virus. These attacks have ranged from hateful slurs to denial of services to brutal acts of violence,’ she added.

COVID-19-related expressions of racism and xenophobia online have included harassment, hate speech, proliferation of discriminatory stereotypes, and conspiracy theories.

Not surprisingly, she argued, leaders who are attempting to attribute COVID-19 to certain national or ethnic groups are the very same nationalist populist leaders who have made racist and xenophobic rhetoric central to their political platforms.

“Political responses to the COVID-19 outbreak that stigmatize, exclude, and make certain populations more vulnerable to violence are inexcusable, unconscionable, and inconsistent with States’ international human rights law obligations”.

“Furthermore, political rhetoric and policy that stokes fear and diminish the equality of all people is counterproductive. To treat and combat the spread of COVID-19 effectively, individuals must have access to accurate health advice and sufficient healthcare without fear of discrimination,” she declared.

Inter Press Service