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Trump’s Kung Flu Takes its Place in Chronology of Racial Fear-Mongering Edward C. Halperin, M.D., M.A.

Photo Credit: Nicholas Kamm/AFP

At Donald Trump’s indoor campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, attendees were neither required to maintain social distance nor wear masks, blatantly disregarding previously established pandemic control guidelines. These guidelines were established by our nation’s top infectious disease physicians, including Dr. Anthony Fauci and other members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. In a rambling speech delivered by Trump, who also did not wear a mask, he referred to COVID-19 as the “kung flu.” He has previously called it the “Chinese virus.” During the rally, he also stated that he had asked government officials to “slow the testing down” for COVID-19 to reduce the reported incidence rate of the disease. As a medical historian, I immediately recognize and recoil from anyone labeling diseases with names that disparage racial or religious groups. Behavior of this type occupies a dark place in medical history.

Attaching Racist Names to Diseases During the 14th century, the Black Death killed about a third of Europe’s population. Most modern medical historians agree that the bacteria named Yersinia pestis caused the Black Death. It was a form of a rapidly progressing disease, which we would now call plague. In the 14th century, however, no one blamed bacteria. Instead, they erroneously blamed the Jews. Large-scale massacres occurred of Europe’s Jews – a period of wholesale slaughter which, in its time, presaged the Holocaust of the 20th century. As syphilis spread across Europe in the 15th century people took turns scapegoating each other. The Germans called it the “French Disease” while the French called it the “Italian disease.” Anglo-Saxon Protestants blamed cholera outbreaks in the United States in the 19th century on Roman Catholic Irish immigration.

The British medical historian Niall Johnson has written that some people try to portray disease as,

“foreignness…What is wrong or unnatural cannot be of us, but must be of the ‘other’… One of the most obvious expressions of such externalizing of blame is when a geographical name becomes attached to a disease. The name suggests both disease and blame.” When President Trump referred to an encapsulated RNA virus as “kung flu” rather than COVID-19, he was trying to shift blame from poorly formulated and incompetently executed public health policy (included his wish to suppress COVID-19 testing), and instead place that blame on the people of Asia. In so doing, he is reincarnating a distasteful late 19th century epithet directed against Asian immigrants to the United States: the “yellow peril.”

‘American Lung Cancer’ Of the four plants of the Americas that spread to the rest of the world following the arrival of Christopher Columbus – potato, maize, tomato, and tobacco – only tobacco has successfully spread to reach everyone on the planet. Tobacco use is responsible for a significant proportion of cancer, cardiovascular, and pulmonary disease and death. How would the citizens of the United States feel if, instead of calling the disease “lung cancer,” the rest of the world adopted the term “American lung cancer?” Would we like it if cigarette-induced emphysema were named after a tobacco-producing state along the lines of “Kentucky Air Hunger Disease” or “North Carolina suffocation?” I think we would be deeply offended. Blaming diseases on racial, religious, or national groups is no joke. Innocent people get beaten or killed because of blame-shifting. We have already seen assaults in our country against Asian Americans as a result of this propensity to use racially charged language. In the midst of a crowd standing far too close to one another while not wearing masks, Trump injected the disease of racial hatred into the already virally infested airborne droplets that were being disseminated in that indoor arena in Tulsa. People of goodwill must oppose the disease of racism as vigorously as they combat the viral pandemic. As appeared in The Globe Post on June 29, 2020.

Why do some people attach racist names to diseases?

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