Most of the world calls this year’s deadly respiratory disease outbreak COVID-19 and attributes it to a novel coronavirus. When U.S. President Donald Trump described the virus last month as “Chinese” because of its origin, China fumed and Trump eventually dropped it.
All along, Taiwanese officials, media and the public have been using the term “Wuhan pneumonia” in Mandarin Chinese, a reference to the central Chinese city where the disease was first reported in December. Local media sometimes call it “China Wuhan pneumonia.”
The label will eventually create a new fissure in already strained relations between Taiwan and China, analysts say.
“Relations between the two sides have become even worse since Covid-19,” said Chao Chien-min, dean of social sciences at Chinese Culture University in Taipei. “If you keep using a location-based name, it’s unfriendly toward others.”
Taiwanese came up with the term "Wuhan pneumonia" because they were talking about it in December and needed a descriptor before the World Health Organization gave it an official name in mid-February.
But Taiwan and China are at odds politically. Use of the earlier term instead of the formal WHO one pivots Taiwanese people’s attention back to where Covid-19 was discovered and stands to sour their impression of China.
Trump dropped the “Chinese virus” in late March and said it was important to avoid blaming Asian Americans for the outbreak.
In Taiwan, the government’s Central Epidemic Command Center uses the term “Wuhan pneumonia” on its daily news releases in parentheses after the English word Covid-19 and the foreign ministry uses the term “Wuhan pneumonia” only in some of its statements.
Taiwan’s government-funded Central News Agency calls the disease “Wuhan pneumonia” in its many news flashes every day about the disease outbreak in other parts of the world. On the streets, people speak of the disease almost always as “Wuhan pneumonia.”
The World Health Organization recommends in its 2015 document “Best Practices for the Naming of New Human Infectious Diseases” against mentioning cities, countries, regions or continents. Spanish flu and Japanese encephalitis are on its “examples to be avoided” list.
Taiwanese mobilized against the virus before most of the world because they fought off the severe acute respiratory syndrome 17 years ago. That disease too came from China.
The government in Taipei began boarding flights from Wuhan three months ago before other parts of the world caught on. Officials do contact tracing of known cases and strictly enforce quarantines. Taiwan has logged a total 329 cases including recovered patients.
A disease’s name targets no one, Health and Welfare Minister Chen Shi-chung told a news conference Monday. “No matter what name, whether an academic name or a colloquial term, they’re fluid ways of talking and convey no discriminatory meaning,” he said.
China claims sovereignty over Taiwan despite the island’s self-rule of more than seven decades. Most Taiwanese oppose Beijing's goal of making Taiwan fall under its flag, government opinion surveys showed last year.
“If people in Taiwan call it (Wuhan pneumonia), I don’t think Beijing will do very much about it, but if the officials in Taiwan government call it, Beijing may react,” said Lin Chong-pin, a retired strategic studies professor in Taiwan.
That reaction would reduce any odds of dialogue between the two governments and raise distrust instead, scholars in Taiwan say. China may send more military aircraft near Taiwan’s airspace too, Chao said.
Today’s government in Taiwan already irks Beijing for declining to hold dialogue on the Communist leadership’s condition that both sides belong to China.
Chinese officials have not called out Taiwan specifically so far for its label of Covid-19, a government media liaison said Wednesday.
Resentment will build in Beijing if the name Wuhan keeps getting used, said Alex Chiang, associate professor of international politics at National Chengchi University in Taipei.
“Unless we stop using the term ‘Wuhan virus’, I don’t think the people in the mainland or the government in the mainland will be friendly to Taiwan,” Chiang said. “They look at it as discriminating, demonizing people or the government of mainland China.”