The History Department at the University of Illinois condemns the repeated use of the racist phrase “Chinese virus” to identify Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. There is a long and ugly history of people and governments blaming foreigners, people of color, and other stigmatized groups for deadly diseases to manage fear and to gain various political or economic advantages. Giving a disease a nickname that singles out a people is no joke; it has real, historically based racist meanings and real consequences. For these reasons, it is important that the University and the larger public call the current frightening epidemic disease Covid-19, the official name adopted by the World Health Organization. Epidemic and pandemic diseases must not be identified with any one group of people. We are all affected by and, in this case, potentially infected by Covid-19.
The 1918 flu pandemic was identified at the time as “the Spanish flu” only because newspapers in Spain, a neutral country in World War I, reported more extensively on the influenza than censored press reports in the United States and elsewhere. In fact, most evidence suggests that the “Spanish Flu” came from Fort Riley, Kansas, and was transported by soldiers mobilizing for war.
As historians, we are mindful of the long and shameful history of racist discourses and practices that Americans have focused on people in China and Asia as a whole, and on Asian-Americans as well. Sadly, there are too many incidents to mention. Relevant examples include widespread nineteenth-century disparagement of Chinese-American immigrants for supposedly "unAmerican" standards of living associated with crowding and disease that, where not completely fabricated, had more to do with the exploitation and segregation that resulted from racism. Nor is current scapegoating of Asian-Americans a novel phenomenon as evidenced by events such as the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin in Detroit, in the midst of an economic downturn blamed on Japanese automobile imports, or the more recent attacks on Sikh immigrants because of supposed resemblance to Al-Qaeda members. Today, Asian and Asian-American people in the US are the subjects of taunting, abuse, and attacks due to the irresponsible statements of national leaders, despite their later retraction of hateful rhetoric. This is unconscionable, here or anywhere else in the world.
We stand in solidarity with our colleagues, faculty, staff, and students who have been and may yet still be subjected to such abuse. We stand in solidarity with everyone who is laboring to help the infected and assist the affected. We call upon institutional, local, and national leaders to uproot the linkage of disease and disasters with particular groups, whenever and wherever that may occur.
Approved by the Department of History Faculty on Friday, April 3, 2020.