It is Called "COVID-19," Not the "Chinese Virus!"

Do not call the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) the "Chinese virus."

Posted Mar 21, 2020

Words matter, especially the words we use to describe a deadly virus. Please do not call the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) the "Chinese virus." Linking China with this deadly virus will only result in negative feelings toward people from China, and people from other East Asian countries.

Calling COVID-19 the "Chinese virus"  is a disturbing example of classical conditioning theory, which was discovered by Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936). Pavlov won a Nobel Prize in 1904 for his research on the role of saliva in digestion, but that is not what he is most famous for. Pavlov was studying digestion in dogs, and he noticed that the dogs started salivating at the mere sight of the food pail. Pavlov tested whether other stimuli (e.g., hearing the sound of a bell) could also be associated with food, and found similar effects. Based on his findings, Pavlov developed classical condition theory.

Classical conditioning theory begins with the premise that an unconditioned stimulus (e.g., food) will produce an unconditioned response (salivation). The neutral stimulus (e.g., the sight of a food pail, sound of a bell) initially does not produce any response. Through repeated pairing, however, the neutral stimulus becomes a conditioned stimulus, which can produce the same response as the unconditioned stimulus, called a conditioned response.

In this example, the unconditioned stimulus is the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), which produces the unconditioned response of negative feelings (e.g., fear, panic). The neutral stimulus is China. But repeatedly pairing China with the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) by calling it the "Chinese virus" may make China a conditioned stimulus. The net result is that calling coronavirus disease (COVID-19) the "Chinese virus" can produce negative feelings toward people from China and other East Asian countries.

Sadly, this already seems to be happening around the world.[1] Since the outbreak of COVID-19, some people from China have become the targets of prejudice and discrimination. For example, Andrew Zhou, a Chinese-Canadian in Vancouver, was taunted on his school playground: “YO VIRUS-BOY! DON'T INFECT US!” Hao Chunxiang, a Chinese university student in The Netherlands, reported that the elevator in his dormitory had been spray-painted with the words “DIE CHINESE.” In the US, Asian-Americans reported over 650 racist acts in one week alone.[2] In Midland, Texas, three Asian American family members, including a 2-year-old and 6-year-old, were stabbed. The suspect indicated that he stabbed the family because he thought the family was Chinese, and infecting people with the coronavirus.[3] There are many other examples described in the podcast, "I Became a Person of Suspicion."[4] Indeed, 2,120 hate incidents against Asian-Americans have been reported during the pandemic.[5]

The hatred can also generalize to people from other East Asian countries, such as Korea, Indonesia,, Myanmar, Vietnam, and the Philippines. For example, Rachelle Cruz, an American-Filipino, said a passenger on a train called her mother a "Chinese Coronavirus bitch," said her parents were "bearers of the virus," and should "go back to their country."[6] 

The World Health Organization (WHO) advises against naming pathogens for geographic regions.[7] Based on classical conditioning theory, this is good advice. COVID-19 should not be called the "Chinese virus," the "Wuhan virus" (Wuhan is the Chinese city that first reported the virus), or the "kung flu." 

As Shannon Lee, daughter of martial arts film star Bruce Lee, wrote: "I want us all to understand there is no 'Chinese Virus.' A virus knows no nationality, and wherever and however it started, it does us no good to point fingers, ostracize, attack or demonize Asian people."[8] Lee is not alone. Two-thirds of Americans oppose using terms such as "kung flu," "Chinese virus," and "Wuhan virus" to describe COVIOD-19.[9]

During this global pandemic, it is not useful to divide people into "us" and "them" categories. We are all "us." We all belong to the same category — "human beings." 


{1} The Economist (February 17, 2020). The coronavirus spreads racism against—and among—ethnic Chinese. Retrieved from

[2] Yoshiko Kandil, C. (March 26, 2020). Asian Americans report over 650 racist acts over last week, new data says. NBC News. Retrieved from

[3] Margolin, J. (March 27, 2020). FBI warns of potential surge in hate crimes against Asian Americans amid coronavirus. ABC News. Retrieved from

[4] "I Became a Person of Suspicion." The Daily. Retrieved from

[5] Donaghue, E. (July 2, 2020). 2,120 hate incidents against Asian Americans reported during coronavirus pandemic. CBS News. Retrieved from

[6] Wong, B. (March 25, 2020). For Asian Americans, there are two pandemics: COVID-19 and daily bigotry. Huffington Post. Retrieved from

[7] World Health Organization (May 8, 2015). WHO issues best practices for naming new human infectious diseases. Retrieved from

[8] Drury, S. (March 25, 2020). "We Can't Be Silent": Asian Americans in Hollywood denounce "Chinese virus" and racist incidents. The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved from

[9] Schulte, G. (July 13, 2020). Poll: 66 percent say use of terms 'kung flu,' 'China virus' inappropriate. The Hill. Retrieved from