GOP lawmakers continue to use 'Wuhan virus' or 'Chinese coronavirus'

The racist rhetoric around the virus could potentially be a tactic in distracting from Trump’s handling of the situation, Rep. Grace Meng said.
Image: Robert Redfield
Dr. Robert Redfield, CDC director, testifies Wednesday at a House hearing on coronavirus preparedness.Patrick Semansky / AP

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By Kimmy Yam

Republican lawmakers have persisted in using "Wuhan virus" or "Chinese coronavirus," despite remarks by Democrats and the director of the CDC that such phrases are inaccurate and even racist.

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., used the term "Wuhan virus" on Thursday in announcing that his Washington office was closing because of the illness. His comments came two days after the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Robert Redfield, agreed when questioned at a House hearing that it was "absolutely wrong and inappropriate" to use such labels.

Redfield said the virus had now expanded beyond China to other parts of the world, particularly Iran, South Korea, Italy and "now all of Europe."

Other GOP officials who have referred to the virus by country or ethnicity have been accused of perpetuating racist associations with the virus. Wuhan is the Chinese city where the outbreak began.

Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., called it the "Wuhan Virus," Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., referred to the “Chinese coronavirus," and President Donald Trump retweeted a comment using the term “China Virus.”

Gosar and other Republicans defended themselves by saying the media had used the same terms in early reporting on the outbreak.

The WHO said it deliberately chose COVID-19 as the official name to avoid such stigmatization.

Three Asian American Democrats in the House, Reps. Ted Lieu and Judy Chu of California, and Grace Meng of New York, as well as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California demanded an apology from McCarthy this week.

Meng told NBC Asian America that she confronted McCarthy in person on Tuesday and described the bullying and racist attacks that some Asian Americans have dealt with as a result of misinformation around the virus. She said she was “disappointed with his response and his reaction.”

“He was not very interested in hearing stories of people being bullied or assaulted,” she said.

“He just kept saying to me, ‘Well, if The New York Times had done this … would you call them out?’ And I said, ‘Easily, when I’ve seen it, I have called them out. … It's my job, to try to help share and inform people.’ And he laughed as he walked away and he said, ‘Well, at least you're consistent.’”

McCarthy’s office did not respond to Meng's criticisms, but responded to NBC News’ request for comment with a link to a "TODAY" show video that also referred to the illness as “Chinese coronavirus” in the title but not the actual clip. The title has since been changed after it was brought to the site’s attention.

The Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus sent a letter to their colleagues in Congress urging them to “help us prevent hysteria, ignorant attacks and racist assaults that have been fueled by misinformation pertaining" to the coronavirus.

The letter urged all members of Congress to share only "confirmed and verifiable information."

Meng said that the rhetoric used by some GOP lawmakers could be a tactic to distract from what they say has been Trump’s mishandling of the response to the outbreak.

“I have talked to longtime hardcore Trump supporters who have never been critical of anything that the president has said or done, but for the first time have shared with me that they have been really disappointed with his handling of the virus outbreak," she said.

She added that she thinks it’s likely some officials are using China or Asian Americans as scapegoats “versus actually dealing with the problem at hand.”

“Even if it's not intentional, it is definitely the consequence,” she said of their words.

Lieu said that by viewing the virus as a Chinese issue, Republicans had "totally dropped the ball" on the response. “What we need are test kits, not inflammatory statements by the GOP House leader," he said.

Lieu also called out Republican lawmakers who “are putting the country in danger by failing to note the gravity of this situation unfolding on American soil.”

“They’re afraid of Trump, but they should be more afraid of what this virus can do to our country if left unchecked,” he said. “It is time for GOP Leadership to focus on facts, instead of on ethnicity.”