COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Ohio’s lieutenant governor dug in his heels Wednesday on a tweet in which he referred to COVID-19 as the “Wuhan virus,” even as advocates warn such rhetoric is a driving force behind violence against Asian Americans, including the recent attacks in Georgia and New York.
Republican Lt. Gov. Jon Husted’s March 26 tweet was the second time in a week that Democratic Sen. Tina Maharath, the first Asian American woman elected to the Ohio General Assembly, heard an elected official call the coronavirus that first emerged in Wuhan, China, the “Wuhan virus,” she said.
Maharath said Husted and others are following the lead of former President Donald Trump, who sometimes used overtly racist terms to refer to the virus.
“When you say those things, such as attach locations or ethnicities to the disease, it creates racial profiling, and then it turns into xenophobic behavior,” Maharath said. “And when leaders with that kind of power repeat those terms in confidence and double down on it, it leads to more hate crimes.”
His intention with the tweet, Husted said in an interview with The Associated Press, was to criticize the Chinese government.
“I was just pointing out that this is an international crisis, in my opinion, that the Chinese government is responsible for and I wanted an independent investigation,” he said. “So I wasn’t trying to accomplish anything that the political left or political right thinks that I might have from that tweet other than to draw attention to the issue.”
The claim that COVID-19 originated in a lab in Wuhan has been scrutinized in the past year by health officials, including the leading U.S. infectious disease specialist, Dr. Anthony Fauci.
The claim was further muddied when a draft obtained by the AP on Monday and formally published Tuesday from the World Health Organization’s inquiry said it was “extremely unlikely” that the virus emerged accidentally from a Chinese laboratory and was likely spread from animals to humans.
Yet for nearly a week, Husted has defended a tweet that linked to an article in which Robert Redfield, the ex-director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said, without citing evidence, that he believed the virus originated in a lab in Wuhan.
“So it appears it was the Wuhan Virus after all?” Husted tweeted Friday from his personal account.
Some replies supported Husted for standing up to China. More numerous were critical replies from Twitter users who said such rhetoric feeds into hate and violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
The organization Stop AAPI Hate released a report last month that showed it received more than 3,800 reports in the U.S. of episodes ranging from shunning and verbal harassment to assault from March 2020 to Feb. 28 of this year. Many of the confrontations were linked to misconceptions around the virus.
A gunman walked into three spas March 16 in the Atlanta area, killing eight people, six of them Asian women, though police have yet to designate the shootings as a hate crime. The shock was still fresh when a man was caught on surveillance video Monday in New York City kicking an Asian American woman and stomping on her face while, police say, he shouted anti-Asian slurs.
Gov. Mike DeWine defended his lieutenant Monday, saying “there is no prejudice there at all.”
“We love the people, but we can still be critical of the government of China without being prejudice,” the Republican governor told reporters.
Two days before Husted’s tweet, Republican Ohio Sen. Terry Johnson mentioned the “Wuhan virus” on the chamber floor.
“We called it the Wuhan virus because that’s where it came from,” Johnson said. “We always called viruses by where they came from, but now we don’t even do that because of all this political correctness.”
In the past century, international health experts have intentionally avoided naming diseases after the city or region of origin because of potential stigma. In 2015, the World Health Organization issued guidelines that discouraged the use of geographic locations, animals or groups of people in naming diseases.
But Husted remained firm in his AP interview.
“On Twitter, there were a lot of people who are from what I will call the cancel culture, who immediately assumed that there was a racial element to the tweet,” Husted said, “which there wasn’t any.”