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Why “Chinese virus” is wrong

It’s scientifically incorrect to call COVID-19 the ‘Chinese Virus’ – so why do politicians do it? Read Dr Simon Taylor’s latest blog.

virology concept, floating virus pathogen cells on the Chinese flag background.

By Dr Simon Taylor, Faculty (Professor level) in Management Practice (Finance)

Dr Simon Taylor.
Dr Simon Taylor

I was asked a question by a student today and I thought I would share my answer in this blog.

The question: “You rightly call the global financial crisis of ’08 the North American crisis – in attribution, correctly, to its origin. In the same light I was wondering why you don’t refer to the current pandemic as the Chinese virus instead of Covid-19?”

My answer is in two parts.

Why “North American” financial crisis?

The usual name of the 2008-09 financial crisis is Global Financial Crisis, but this refers more to the effects of the financial crisis, which were indeed global owing to the deep recession in the US and Europe, which caused a big fall in global trade. China suffered no financial crisis but was exposed to the fall in its exports, and took offsetting action in the form of a large domestic financial stimulus.

The 2008-09 financial crisis is also sometimes called the North Atlantic financial crisis, as the UK also suffered major banking collapses. The financial crisis, or series of crises, that we usually call the Eurozone or European sovereign debt crisis began in 2009 and though there are underlying links between the crises, as shown by Adam Tooze in his definitive book Crashed, the underlying causes were quite separate. Tooze points out that much of the international impact of the US-based crisis was a result of the global role of the dollar (which remains the case). Tooze refers to it as the “great financial crisis”.

But the clear cause of the “global” financial crisis was a combination of a real estate bubble and the shadow banking system in the US. The UK banking crisis was more simply a result of excessive and poor quality lending, mostly in real estate, but there was no equivalent shadow banking aspect in the UK. The Eurozone crisis was about sovereign debt, and the linkage to commercial bank purchases of that debt, not real estate.

Historically, financial crises have either been named after their location e.g. the Asian Financial crisis of 1997 (which should really be called the South East Asian Financial Crisis since India, Japan and China were largely unaffected), the “Tequila crisis” (the 1995 Mexican sovereign debt problem), the South Sea Bubble and Mississippi Bubble of 1720 and so on. Sometimes the crisis is named after a particular type of institution e.g. the Savings & Loan crisis in the US in the late 1980s or the Secondary Banking Crisis in the UK in 1973-75. Very occasionally they are named after a particular bank, Barings Bank being distinctive in having two crises named after it, the first in 1890 and the second (and terminal one) in 1995.

Why not “Chinese virus”?

Viruses are not named after locations, though the diseases they call sometimes are, occasionally erroneously (the “Spanish Flu” of 1918 didn’t originate in Spain, it was reported there only because Spain, being neutral in the First World War, had no censorship – the disease is generally believed to have started in the USA). The US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention has a list of pandemics, which names the viruses e.g. the 2009 H1N1 Pandemic (H1N1pdm09 virus). The CDC’s list of pandemics does include the relevant geography. For example, in 2009 “a novel influenza A (H1N1) virus emerged. It was detected first in the United States and spread quickly across the United States and the world”. It also gives estimated casualties: “CDC estimated that 151,700-575,400 people worldwide died from (H1N1)pdm09 virus infection during the first year the virus circulated” (note the very wide range of estimated deaths).

Another, less famous example is the 1968 pandemic (H3N2 virus). According to the CDC: “It was first noted in the United States in September 1968. The estimated number of deaths was one million worldwide and about 100,000 in the United States.”

Note that these two viruses were first detected in the US and went on to kill of the order of several hundred thousand people outside the US. The CDC does not refer to them as American viruses, nor as far as I am aware does anyone else.

The 2020 pandemic is caused by a virus called SARS-CoV-2. Understandably people don’t use that complicated name but instead refer to the disease the virus causes, namely COVID-19. Neither the CDC, nor the WHO, nor the official US government website on COVID-19 refers to this as the “Chinese virus” though it is widely agreed that it was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

The only people who sometimes use the term “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus” are politicians or those connected to them who appear to want to deflect blame for their own failings in protecting their people. The British and Australian governments, while (in my view correctly) calling for an open inquiry into the origins of COVID-19 (which is being opposed by the Chinese government), do not refer to a “Chinese virus”, in line with established protocols.

I conclude that historical precedent, medical science and common sense all support the description “North American financial crisis” but not “Chinese virus”.

This article was originally posted on Simon Taylor’s blog on 6 May.