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Naming Rites

In the middle of a worldwide pandemic, this debate has emerged on what to call the virus. Some may currently consider racial epithets a trivial issue in light of presumed growing morbidity/mortality rates; but words matter, especially edicts coming from our leaders contributing to a particular environment and producing lasting consequences, especially during a worldwide crisis.

The President has repeatedly used the term “Chinese Virus,” citing his insistence on emphasizing the truthful origin of the pestilence from Wuhan wet markets. While that assertion is correct, critics, including Trump’s own epidemiologist and director of the National Instititute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci, follow World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines and insist on using the term, COVID-19, so at best not to stigmatize a particular region or ethnic group, and at worst, not be racist. 

As a business ethicist, I am constantly called upon to determine whether a given action is moral. Some actions are obviously not, and we don’t need a Ph.D. in ethics to render it so. Calling a person a chink or jap or denying African-American individuals a job or house because of race is definitely wrong. Other actions fall in a gray area, and we must investigate various components of the action to judge moral character. To adjudicate a controversial moral act, we must take a look at 1) the action itself; 2) its intent; and 3) the consequences.

The term, “Chinese Virus,” and issues like financial incentives and affirmative action fall in this debatable grey area and demand further analysis. Since using this label is precisely what is at question, and discovering an individual’s motivation is difficult, we must turn to the consequences of the act to shed further light on moral character.

Upon reflection during these political times and crises moments, we must give extra grace and “benefit of the doubt” to those on the other side of the aisle. I must admit not caring much for 45; however, I must give him credit for apparently changing his mind/behavior about giving the virus an ethnicity, but finally being up front about its nefarious impact on morbidity and mortality … regardless of motivation. A worldwide pandemic is not a normal situation, but it neither gives pretext for the blame game nor the opportunity to needle one another. Nationwide stress levels and impatience run high, and everyone is on edge. I don’t envy our nation’s leadership; it’s far easier to criticize than assume their role/position. I thank them for governing during this difficult time. In clicking on Internet links, I have noticed that outside observers, including myself, tend to prejudge an actor’s motivations based on their own respective political persuasion, and then form judgments presuming the actor’s intent. This confirmation bias needs a steady reprimand and counterequilibrium.

However, leaders must also acknowledge they are persons of influence, who in turn, affect larger ripples. There is a good reason the WHO has set parameters on how to label emerging illnesses. These terms set, reinforce, redefine, and have the capacity to harm neighboring countries and fail to love and respect fellow citizens. These consequences automatically make associating any virus with any region or race immoral and unethical. It is indeed appropriate to call a nation (e.g. China) accountable for being transparent in their reporting, and for their sanitary practices in the Wuhan Wet Markets. Just because illnesses (e.g., West Nile or Ebola Viruses) were associated in the past with its origins does not mean it is currently the rght thing to do. It is not kosher to engender a hostile environment for those not culpable for this malpractice (i.e., Chinese or Asian-American denizens).

May this scourge end quickly! Grace and peace to you and yours in the meantime.

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