Disease and Prejudice

The emergence of the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) has led to increased anti-Asian prejudice, and specifically anti-Chinese prejudice.

The virus is believed to have originated in a wet market in Wuhan, China, in 2019. This has inspired some to brand it “the Wuhan virus”, “the Chinese virus”, or even the “Kung flu.”

Some of our world leaders have resorted to this kind of inaccurate, discriminatory labeling, which is in part a retaliatory act based on the conspiracy theory that the United States military introduced the Coronavirus to China.

Before a recent press briefing at the White House, a photographer noticed that within President Trump’s notes the word “Corona” had been crossed out with a marker and “Chinese” written in its place. (See above photo.)

Panic and fear of disease can often bring out the worst in people, who feel they need someone to blame.

Historically, naming diseases has been an international blame game. Syphilis was once called the “French Pox” among the British and Germans, the “British Disease” by the Tahitians, and the “Spanish Pox” to the Dutch and French. The Russians blamed it on the Polish, who in turn called it the “German disease.” In India and Japan it was called the “Portuguese disease,” in Persia it was called the “Turkish disease,” and in Turkey it was known as the “Christian disease.”

There is a parallel today with AIDS. Those in the western world trace its origins to Africa. However, many people in Africa attribute AIDS to the West, where it is known as “the American disease.”

Some diseases are “toponymous”, that is, they are named after places which give a glimpse into their discovery and history. For example, Ebola was named after the Ebola river in Zaire while the Zika virus was named after the Zika forest in Ghana.

Many diseases are named after countries (e.g., Spanish influenza and German measles), people (e.g., Down Syndrome, Parkinson’s Disease, and Alzheimer’s Disease), and animals (e.g., bird flu and swine flu). These names are often misnomers and they can be offensive for various reasons. For example, German measles was so named for the German physicians that first described the infection, not because it originated in Germany. For this reason, it’s more frequently called rubella (“little red” in Latin) in clinical settings.

The World Health Organization has called for the careful naming of new diseases to avoid such names that are misleading and unscientific.

This kind of naming is dangerous because it can stigmatize and demonize places and people.

NB. I discuss disease and prejudice in my forthcoming book On the Offensive: Prejudice in Language Past and Present.

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Karen Stollznow

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Stollznow is a linguist and researcher. She is the author of the best-selling book God Bless America. Her other titles include Hits & Mrs., Language Myths, Mysteries and Magic, Would You Believe It? and Haunting America. Her forthcoming book is On the Offensive: Prejudice in Language Past and Present.

2 Comments on "Disease and Prejudice"

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  1. Gene Brown says:

    I wish that this were a new phenomenon. But, sadly, it has been this way in the U.S. for centuries. For a country made up of immigrants, you’d think we’d be a little more broad-minded about others, but we’re not. Thanks for adding some clarity to this problem.

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