A top World Health Organisation (WHO) official on Wednesday condemned the use of language that could stigmatise certain ethnic groups over the coronavirus outbreak, as US President Donald Trump defended his adoption of the term “Chinese virus”.
“It’s really important that we be careful in the language we use lest it lead to profiling of individuals associated with the virus,” said Mike Ryan, the head of the WHO’s health emergency programmes. “This is just something we need to all avoid.”
As the Covid-19 pandemic, which has claimed nearly 9,000 lives, has swept through the world, verbal and physical attacks against ethnic Chinese people and others of East Asian descent have swelled.
On Tuesday, Weijia Jiang, a White House correspondent for CBS News, said an administration official had used the term “Kung-Flu” in front of her.
“I’m sure anyone would regret profiling a virus along an ethnic line,” Ryan, who did not mention Trump by name, said on Wednesday.
Briefing reporters on Wednesday with updates in what he called his administration’s “war against the Chinese virus”, Trump was grilled by several journalists over whether such language could fuel rising xenophobic attacks against Asian-Americans.
“It’s not racist at all, no,” he said. “It comes from China, that’s why.”
Trump, who has repeatedly rejected any criticism of his administration’s response to the Covid-19 outbreak, said that Asian-Americans “would probably agree with [the term] 100 per cent”.
Such language, which contravenes WHO guidelines against the use of geographical terms in naming diseases, has elicited a wave of criticism from the US public, advocacy groups and lawmakers – including, contrary to Trump’s estimations, Asian-Americans.
Representative Judy Chu, a Democrat from California, secured a commitment last month from Trump’s secretary of health and human services, Alex Azar, to refrain from calling it “China coronavirus”.
“We must ensure that nobody is discriminated against based on ethnicity,” Azar said during a US House hearing. “Ethnicity is not what causes the coronavirus.”
Former US vice-president Joe Biden, who likely will be Trump’s opponent in the November election, also criticised the president’s continued use of the term “Chinese virus”.
“Stop the xenophobic fearmongering. Be honest. Take responsibility. Do your job,” Biden tweeted on Wednesday.
Trump had previously referred to the contagion as the “coronavirus” or, simply “the virus”, but that changed on Monday amid a flurry of remarks by Chinese diplomats who, citing conspiracy theories, suggested that the contagion could have been brought to China by US soldiers competing in the Military World Games in Wuhan in October.
Trump said on Wednesday that such claims were unacceptable. “That can’t happen,” he said. “It’s not going to happen, not as long as I’m president.”
The spat has intensified tensions between Washington and Beijing at a time when WHO officials are calling for a unified global response to the pandemic.
“This is a time for solidarity, this is a time for facts,” Ryan said. “All that we need now is to be able to identify the things we need to do to move forward quickly with speed, with certainty and to avoid any indication of ethnic or other associations of this virus.”
When asked on Wednesday about the purported usage of “Kung-Flu” by a White House official, White House adviser Kellyanne Conway said that Jiang, the CBS reporter, should reveal the name of the official, who was not speaking on the record. “I’m not going to engage in hypotheticals,” she said.
Deflecting further questioning over the alleged incident, she said: “I’m married to an Asian.”
Later in the morning, George Conway – her husband and a fierce Trump critic – began sharing posts on Twitter linking to a Washington Post column he penned last year with the headline “Trump is a racist president.”
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