Date: April 6, 2020
By: Noah Weber
Illustration by Julia YH
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文 Cài Yīngwén) calls the coronavirus two different names. On her English-language Twitter and in the English portion of an April 1 address, she has used the term coined by the World Health Organization (WHO): COVID-19. But in Chinese during that same address, she called it Wǔhàn fèiyán (武漢肺炎) — “Wuhan pneumonia.” The shift between terms reflects a debate in Taiwan between Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and leaders of the Kuomintang (KMT) opposition, as well as between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China.
Like Tsai, I have also thought carefully about what to call the novel coronavirus in Chinese. In a mid-January WeChat post, I went with “Wuhan pneumonia,” but much has changed in the two and a half months since. I’ve deleted that post because, among other reasons, I no longer stand behind the term “Wuhan pneumonia” — it just makes no sense for me to perpetuate the association of a borderless disease with a specific region.
Still, Tsai’s use of “Wuhan pneumonia” is not the same as American president Donald Trump’s use of “Chinese Virus,” and I can understand why she might choose to do so for a domestic audience. Let me explain.
Naming conventions for the novel coronavirus have evolved in both Chinese and English, and the debate continues as to what it should be called. The Chinese state-run People’s Daily used the term “Wuhan pneumonia” in early January, as in “散步武漢肺炎謠言8人被依法處理” (sànbù Wǔhàn fèiyán yáoyán 8 rén bèi yīfǎ chǔlǐ — “Eight People Face Legal Consequences for Spreading Rumors on Wuhan Pneumonia”), and, “武漢肺炎病例初判為新型冠狀病毒” (Wǔhàn fèiyán bìnglì chū pàn wèi xīnxíng guānzhuàng bìngdú — “Early Investigation Suggests Wuhan Pneumonia a Novel Coronavirus”). This publication itself headlined a January 6 article, “Wuhan’s Mystery Pneumonia Spreads.” Some Western news outlets used the phrase “Wuhan coronavirus” in early headlines to distinguish COVID-19 from other coronaviruses like SARS and MERS. These headlines were written at a time when there were very few cases of the virus, and nearly all of them were known to be in Wuhan; they do not read as stigmatizing in their context.