Until recently, Representative Paul Gosar, a Republican from Arizona, was most famous for tweeting a lie: a faked photo of President Barack Obama shaking hands with Hassan Rouhani, the president of Iran. This weekend, Gosar made news with another tweet: In response to the report that he had been in contact with a man confirmed to have contracted the novel coronavirus, he announced that he was placing himself in self-quarantine from what he called the “Wuhan virus.”
Scientists are using the internationally accepted name COVID-19 to describe the disease caused by the novel coronavirus that was discovered late last year. But a number of prominent conservatives—including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas—are going with Wuhan virus, as if the deadly new pathogen were one more scourge to be blamed on the Chinese. As many of the responses to Gosar on Twitter pointed out, this kind of rhetoric invites the public to see a global epidemic in racial or (at best) geopolitical terms.
Defenders of the term countered both that the virus did appear first in a real place called Wuhan, and that many diseases are named after the site of a first or famous outbreak. That’s true of the viral hemorrhagic infections Ebola and Marburg, tick-borne Lyme disease, and others. But the geographic defense has to be weighed against the rhetoric that says out loud what locating the current threat to Wuhan only implies.