The Atlantic Politics Daily: The Dangerous Misnaming of the Coronavirus

The president went out of his way to spin COVID-19 as a menace coming from abroad, referring to its source as a “foreign virus.” Plus: The staggering heartlessness toward the elderly.

It’s Thursday, March 12. In today’s newsletter: The insidious language of the “Wuhan virus.” Plus: The staggering heartlessness toward the elderly.


When it comes to the popular naming of infectious diseases, xenophobia has long played a prominent role. (DUKAI)

President Donald Trump’s Oval Office address may have been intended to console a country that is growing frantic about the coronavirus pandemic, but it at best confused Americans.

Trump made news by announcing a temporary European travel ban (followed by clarifications), but as my colleague David Frum argues, that does little to address the real problems at hand:

More people will get sick because of his presidency than if somebody else were in charge. More people will suffer the financial hardship of sickness because of his presidency than if somebody else were in charge. The medical crisis will arrive faster and last longer than if somebody else were in charge. So, too, the economic crisis. More people will lose their jobs than if somebody else were in charge. More businesses will be pushed into bankruptcy than if somebody else were in charge.

Trump went out of his way to spin the coronavirus as a menace coming from abroad, referring to it as a “foreign virus”—just a few days after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a point to call it the “Wuhan virus.” It’s part of a long history in which xenophobia warps the naming of infectious diseases—one that stretches as far back as the 15th century. The point seems relatively straightforward, as Ben Zimmer writes: “Foreign = bad.” Read the full piece from our resident linguist here.

—Saahil Desai

New York has one of the highest reported numbers of cases in the early stages of the U.S. outbreak. (EDUARDO MUNOZ / VIEWPRESS VIA GETTY)

1. “We are not going to defeat this and halt transmission if people loosely interpret what it means to self-quarantine or self-isolate.”

What exactly does “social distancing” look like? It’s not the same thing as self-quarantine or self-isolation (which have serious, strict rules for sick or potentially sick people). Staff writer Kaitlyn Tiffany spoke to a series of public health experts to ask them the quotidian questions you might have: Should you go to that wedding? Should you cancel that haircut appointment? Your questions, answered here.

2. “A global pandemic doesn’t give us cause to treat the aged callously.”

Some have tried to dress up their heartlessness as generational retribution. As someone tweeted at Shai Held earlier today, “To be perfectly honest, and this is awful, but to the young, watching as the elderly over and over and over choose their own interests ahead of Climate policy kind of feels like they’re wishing us to a death they won’t have to experience. It’s a sad bit of fair play.”

Held implores humanity amid the coronavirus crisis.

3. “The youths of America are not for Joe Biden—at least not yet.”

They have not embraced a candidate who emblazoned the word malarkey on his campaign bus, who summoned the ghost of John Wayne to chastise a college student, who urged parents in the 21st century to keep a “record player” on for their children, and who hasn’t been able to match the unlikely cool factor of a rival a year even older than himself. Read the rest.

4. “The coronavirus has no political motivation, no personal preferences, and it certainly does not care about Oscar nominations; perhaps that’s a fact more Americans will take to heart following the news of Hanks’s and Wilson’s infections.”

The news of Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson’s positive coronavirus diagnosis in Australia yesterday may have been a cultural watershed for Americans who were more skeptical of the severity of the outbreak, David Sims writes: Hanks is known as “America’s Dad” because so many people identify with his everyman persona.


Introducing Floodlines: a new Atlantic podcast about an unnatural disaster.

In our magazine’s first narrative podcast, Vann R. Newkirk II revisits the story of Hurricane Katrina—and what it tells us about race, government accountability, class, and climate change—15 years later.

In the time of a global viral pandemic, one of the things to watch is the response of the government. How those in leadership handle their response to catastrophe is a critical lesson for this moment.

Listen to all eight episodes now.


Today’s newsletter was written by Saahil Desai, an editor on the Politics desk, and Christian Paz, a Politics fellow. It was edited by Shan Wang, who oversees newsletters.

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