Tibbs: It’s not the “kung flu”

Columnist Ashley Tibbs frowns on the use of “kung flu” to describe COVID-19, especially from those in higher offices such as President Donald Trump. 

Ashley Tibbs

Two months ago, Chinese American White House correspondent for CBS News Weijia Jiang tweeted that a senior White House official referred to COVID-19 as the “kung flu” to her face.  

Many people accused her of lying. This includes counselor to the president, Kellyanne Conway, who described the term as “very offensive” and called on Jiang to step in front of the camera and name the person or persons being accused.  

This was three months ago. 

Donald Trump also referred to COVID-19 as the “kung flu” at his rally in Tulsa late Saturday night, and twice more since then. The White House has scrambled to defend his use of the derogatory term. 

Press secretary Kayleigh McEnany defended the president indicates the virus originated from China.

“The president,” she said, “does not believe it is offensive to note that the virus came from China.” Quite an odd statement from the press secretary, considering kung fu refers to ancient martial arts practiced all over the world and not an actual place within the borders of China. 

The White House’s strategy since March is to blame the U.S.’s lackluster response to COVID-19 on China (despite many other developed countries’ ability to effectively manage the virus). This is simply another attempt by the administration to deflect and distract from their handling of the pandemic — by using a (racist) nickname for COVID-19. 

This is particularly troubling and frustrating knowing there have been over 1,700 reports of COVID-19-related discrimination against Asian Americans since March 19.

Trump originally referred to the virus as the “Chinese virus,” even after the public and the media pointed out the xenophobic nature of the name and worried about the impact it could have on Asian Americans. For a couple of months, Trump backed down, but the increasing pressure from the upcoming election has him falling back on old habits. 

Using “kung flu” to describe COVID-19 is not an indictment against China like the press secretary suggested. The idea that the White House expects Americans to accept the president’s use of the term is, quite frankly, ridiculous. 

The president’s rhetoric runs the very real risk of adding fuel to the fire by exacerbating xenophobic and racially-inspired scapegoating. His continued insistence on using different names for the virus — including Chinese virus, Wuhan flu and China plague — is tapping into racist stereotypes of Asian people as “foreigners who spread disease.” 

Call it by its official name: COVID-19 or coronavirus. 

No one should call this virus “kung flu” or any other variation. 

It’s racist and derogatory, and it’s certainly not an appropriate name for a virus that claimed the lives of 124,000 Americans. We should be able to expect better from the nation’s highest office, though it seems unlikely we can.