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Hate is contagious

Mar 02,2020
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LEE DONG-HYUN
The author is the deputy head of the industry team of the JoongAng Ilbo.

The English word “virus” originates from the Latin root referring to noxious elements. It was used for hundreds of years as various metaphors. The modern term “computer virus” is also a sort of metaphor.

On Feb. 25, Ben Zimmer, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, wrote in “Virus: The Spread of a Latin Term for Poison” that a book published in the 16th century had a word play using virus, or poison, and vires, meaning powers. The metaphor means that the power wielded by the mighty can be fatally poisonous like a virus.

Virus has a political connotation by its name alone. About the novel coronavirus infection, the World Health Organization (WHO) named it Covid-19, but some people still call it “Wuhan pneumonia.” In English-speaking countries, some people call it a “Wuhan flu” or “Wuflu” for short.

As the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses named it “SARS-CoV-2,” China claimed that it is a reminder of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, which broke out and spread fast in China in 2003. Subtle tension with WHO also began.

After the Korean government — which in the beginning urged the public not to use such names as “Wuhan pneumonia” and “Wuflu” — used the terms “Daegu coronavirus” in a press release, many Koreans criticized it for using such a defamatory and unreasonable expression. Daegu is where the Covid-19 infections are concentrated in Korea. On social media, some people even call it “Shincheonji Corona” to suggest the virus infections mostly occurred among followers of the Shincheonji church in Daegu.

While it is now commonly understood that using the name of a certain region to describe an epidemic is hate speech encouraging stigma, such naming was common in the past. The flu that killed tens of millions across the world in the early 20th century is still called Spanish flu.

In Italy, where 11 people died from Covid-19, terror attacks on Asians are taking place. In a video taken from a supermarket in Milan, Italians assaulted an Asian. The Asian victim said, “Sono fillippino. Non cinese,” claiming that he was Philippine, not Chinese. But it didn’t help.

It is easy to make someone a scapegoat and use the unfortunate situation politically. Perhaps, it may be part of human nature. But finding what’s right and what’s wrong is common sense and dignity of a civilized society. Hate is more contagious than an epidemic.