As many of us are doing in our efforts to stay home to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, I spend a little more time than usual online and specifically, Facebook. Most of the posts I peruse are those that are close to my own views and when the occasional post from a friend shows up that maligns the press or praises the good work of the Republican party, I typically scroll right past, hesitant to “start anything” with one of my Facebook friends.
That is, until I saw a post from a woman whom I haven’t seen for many years, but to whom I continue to be connected via social media. She mostly posts about her family and her Christian faith but they are interspersed with posts revealing her differing opinions on our current administration. The post that stopped me was about the president referring to the novel coronavirus as the “Chinese virus.” She lauded the president for “calling it what it was” and further, loved having him as president. I couldn’t let that post go without commenting about the racism the term was causing. I had read about it; calling it the “Chinese” virus was responsible for a rise in hate crimes against Asians. Friends of mine who experienced it themselves called for it to stop.
Without rancor or judgment, I posted my response–something like “it’s irresponsible for the president to refer to the coronavirus as the Chinese virus as it’s causing pain for the Asian community.” And then I posted a link to the director of the WHO cautioning against the term because of the harm it’s doing already. I didn’t call her any names or insinuate that she had done anything wrong–I was sharing information. When she responded, it was basically to tell me that it came from China and to “call it what it was” and that basically she was more concerned about herself and her family’s health than who was offended by the president’s (or her) use of a biased term. I responded with a brief statement asking, “why use a term when you’ve been told it causes harm” and then left it at that.
Throughout the morning, however, I got notifications when someone mentioned me in a response to my own and the comments weren’t very nice. I’m not going to quote them nor identify the commenters in any way because I’m not here to shame anyone–they deserve their views. But it is difficult to ignore them not only because their views cause direct harm to others, but because they were so sarcastic and mean–to me.
They were all disrespectful in one way or another; one person told me to “toughen up, buttercup. We have more problems to worry about than some grown ups feelings.” Another woman jumped in on the thread–one I don’t know well, but who I believe is in some kind of ministry–to also laugh and joke at the frailty of the people being hurt by the president’s use of the term. All the responses supported the president’s bias. All the responses mocked me in some way. None of them acknowledged that people were being hurt by the term. The whole experience left me disturbed and uncomfortable; not that I was being disrespected so much as that none of these people were people I knew. At one point my own sarcasm nearly got the better of me and I thought about posting, “Wow. You all are mean. No wonder you’re comfortable with a little racism.” But I decided against it.
There is much to be concerned about from this experience. The first is the fact that the name of the virus is “novel coronavirus” and, officially, the disease it causes is called COVID-19. It was never called anything else. Apparently, the president, upon discovering that his use of the term “Chinese” virus was causing an uproar, continued to use it to create more commotion, as he has been known to do. A photographer from the Washington Post shared a picture he took of the president’s speech where it could be clearly seen that the word “corona” was crossed out and “Chinese” was written above it. The WHO warned against the repercussions of naming viruses for countries or regions and changed the naming protocol in 2015. At the time, the assistant Director General said, “This may seem like a trivial issue to some, but disease names really do matter to the people who are directly affected. We’ve seen certain disease names provoke a backlash against members of particular religious or ethnic communities, create unjustified barriers to travel, commerce and trade, and trigger needless slaughtering of food animals. This can have serious consequences for peoples’ lives and livelihoods.” The president knows it’s dangerous and chooses to use it anyway. This doesn’t unify a country or calm a worried nation.
Secondly, though, was the realization of how uncomfortable I was reading all the negative remarks directed at me throughout the day. I didn’t like it. I had chosen to enter into a conversation knowing it might not be welcomed. I made a choice to speak up when it would definitely have been safer to just keep scrolling. But these days, I feel compelled to speak up more–despite the negative response. Calling the virus something other than its official name is to intentionally spread hate. I can’t be a bystander to that anymore. A friend of mine–a young Chinese woman–feels unhappy that it’s just another attack by the president to promote hate. How could I possibly look the other way when someone I know feels targeted that way? That’s what getting out of your comfort zone is supposed to feel like, I imagine: uncomfortable.
Ironically, later that day, the woman who had started the original conversation posted a graphic that entreated, “Time to stock up on compassion.” And that’s what really got to me–the complete disconnect between “stocking up on compassion” and being okay with using a term that is known to cause harm.
Social media is meant to be a way to stay connected. In this time of quarantine and isolation we aren’t really “social distancing” at all, but “physical distancing” as we go to Facebook and other platforms to share our fears and find information. Staying connected with each other, our friends and our families is more important now than ever as we navigate a crisis many of us have never known before. My own fear has made me a little more bold in calling out the misinformation I see. We’re all in this together, not just some of us. I guess I’m going to have to get used to being uncomfortable.