Trump’s Dangerous Coronavirus Name Game is Part of a Long, Crazy History

For the second day in a row, President Trump opened a press conference today devoted to an outbreak that has now killed more than 200 Americans without saying the word “coronavirus.” Instead, he substituted his chosen name: “The Chinese Virus.”

Other Republicans are also racing to rebrand the virus that causes COVID-19. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has called it “Chinese Coronavirus,” while Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar is trying to make “Wuhan Virus” a thing. One White House official even allegedly referred to the global pandemic as “Kung-Flu.”

The World Health Organization intentionally avoids this, and advises against any possible nickname for a disease that calls up people, places, groups, or even professions, because those names can create a stigma. Even the Trump-appointed director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Robert Redfield, told the House in a hearing that using location-specific labels for the virus is “absolutely wrong and inappropriate.”

There is a long, inglorious history of naming diseases after disdained groups. In 1495, Russians called a syphilis outbreak the Polish Disease, the Polish called it the German Disease, and the French and Italians named it after each other. The 1918 flu pandemic that infected over a quarter of the world’s population is still referred to as “The Spanish Flu,” even though there is no consensus on where that outbreak originated. Spain just happened to have the most reliable reporting at the time, as other countries censored their press to boost morale during World War I. Because Spain reported the first illness-related death, it got stuck with the name.

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Meet Trump’s CDC Director Who Has a History of Controversial Health Decisions

You might have seen him lurking behind Vice President press while he’s delivering an update on the administration’s efforts to contain the coronavirus. Or looking on as President Trump touts his own medical know-how during what’s meant to be an update on the administration’s efforts to contain the coronavirus.

He’s Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And while Trump’s approach to the epidemic to date seems to involve minimizing the issue, Redfield oversees the federal agency tasked with actually responding to it. So who is he?

Redfield is no stranger to epidemics, seeing as he’s a virologist. When he was announced as the CDC director in 2018, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar cited his pioneering contributions to advancing our understanding of HIV/AIDS.

But some of those contributions have been controversial.

As the U.S. Army’s chief AIDS researcher in the 1980s, Redfield supported mandatory HIV screening for the military, which kept recruits from serving if they tested positive, and led to several active duty troops being segregated — a practice Redfield defended at the time as necessary to control the AIDS epidemic.

In 1992, the Defense Department investigated Redfield after he was accused of overselling the effects of an experimental HIV vaccine he oversaw. Though no evidence of misconduct was found, the vaccine ended up failing.

That same investigation criticized Redford for having an inappropriately close relationship with a non-profit founded by evangelical Christians, which worked to contain the HIV/AIDS outbreak by advocating for abstinence before marriage, rather than passing out condoms — a view he says he’s since changed.

When it comes to the U.S. response to the coronavirus, the CDC is playing catch up. And Redfield is one of the key people who’s going to be answering for it. The agency shipped its first test kits to state labs in February, a month after the world learned of the outbreak in China. But some of those kits were flawed, thanks to a contaminated reagent, leaving labs with inconclusive results.

As of March 9, the CDC and state health labs had conducted more than 8-and-a-half thousand tests, resulting in 423 confirmed cases. Compare that to the UK, which has a similar number of confirmed cases — 319 — but has managed to test nearly 25,000 people.

Those numbers are already out of date, but whatever they are by the time you read this, it’s likely that Trump will be seeking to downplay them.

That shouldn’t matter to the director of the CDC, whose first concern should be the health of Americans, not the health of his boss’s ego. So it’s not exactly inspiring when, on Trump’s visit to the CDC, Redfield said the most important thing he wanted to say … was a thank you to Trump, for visiting the CDC.

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