“Chinese Virus”: A Metaphorical Analysis of the COVID-19 Pandemic
by Jacob Mewborn
With COVID-19 spreading throughout the world and forcing nations to adjust their way of life, world leaders, such as the United States President, hold great responsibility in shaping their citizens’ psyche and view toward the virus. Trump’s early descriptions of coronavirus as “the Chinese Virus” hold tremendous implications toward the mentality Americans have developed in relation to Chinese Americans. Such rhetoric requires a metaphorical analysis of Trump’s language in press conferences and tweets held in March of 2020 in order to begin understanding the effects his phrasing has created for the American reaction to the pandemic.
The research of Lakoff & Johnson in regard to metaphor and the past racializations of diseases, such as SARS, will guide this analysis. Racializing COVID-19 against the Chinese has already created a negative attitude toward the Chinese American population and in some cases physical manifestations have been present against them. In this case, the metaphors used by President Trump highlight who to blame for the disease while ignoring America’s own responsibility or progressive steps toward handling its spread. Due to the novelty and ever-changing development of the coronavirus and how it is portrayed in media, this analysis only serves as a foundation for the rhetorical study of COVID-19’s coverage in lay media, so future analysis is necessary in order to fully understand its implications.
Keywords: COVID-19, Trump, Metaphor, Rhetorical Criticism
Novel. Unprecedented. Silent Killer. Pandemic. These are all words closely associated with the novel coronavirus (also known as COVID-19) that began terrorizing the world in December 2019. Beginning in Wuhan, China, COVID-19 has spread throughout all nations, crippling economies, prohibiting gatherings, and inducing fear. People became glued to their televisions and computers for updates from the media, praying for some kind of hope and good news. However, they are often met with the opposite, and their only choice is to absorb the horror with no end in sight.
As the world is put on hold, citizens around the globe look to world leaders for guidance, assurance, and hope. The sentiments and information presented in press briefings from political figures and public health officials are rapidly spread and shared with millions due to the widespread availability of technology in modern society and culture. Press briefings and other social media outlets, such as Twitter, inform, update, and shape opinions about the virus and its spread. Although the pandemic is clearly a global crisis, this essay is focused on the rhetoric surrounding this virus in America specifically. President Donald Trump is a public figure who has discussed the virus at length in both official press conferences and unofficially on Twitter. Trump’s status and his words are extremely influential in shaping American public opinion about the disease and its development.
Some of the most recent ways Trump publicly discussed the virus utilize war metaphors. He refers to the disease as a “battle” to be fought against “enemies.” He rhetorically conflates countries with the disease when he publicly refers to “the Chinese Virus” and “Wuhan virus.” In this essay, I aim to show how these metaphors and conflations by President Trump and Americans create and/or sanction racism and xenophobia towards Chinese populations and Chinese Americans. Furthermore, I discuss how President Trump’s methods of discussing the virus are aimed at blame shifting for COVID-19’s spread, placing blame/guilt on the Chinese rather than Americans. Metaphorically conflating or substituting concepts can have complex effects on audiences; moreover, metaphors circulated in the lay media have a powerful potential to resonate with the American public. I use a variety of texts to analyze these metaphors and conflations including Tweets written by President Trump and press briefings. I choose to analyze these specific texts because they clearly represent Trump’s initial public reaction and statements on COVID-19 although they develop over time. For the purpose of this analysis, it is Trump’s initial public remarks on the virus that I believe shaped and continue to influence America’s attitude toward the virus in relation to the Chinese American population.
To analyze these metaphors and conflations, I turn to rhetorical criticism and metaphor analysis to guide my research. I begin with a review of the literature on metaphor, metaphor analysis, and research surrounding the SARS crisis from the early 21st century to provide a historical example of the stigmatization that comes from ethnicizing diseases. I then conduct a metaphor analysis of Trump’s COVID-19 speeches to indicate the potentially hazardous effects they pose to the American psyche. Lastly, I review the points presented and the research discussed to emphasize the importance metaphor has on the audience’s mental processes in shaping viewpoints and attitudes toward the pandemic.
Though thousands of books have been written about AIDS, HIV, H1N1, and SARS virus controversies, academic scholarship has yet to account for the nuances of COVID-19 rhetoric, including metaphors, due to the recency of the virus. As a result, in this section I offer a brief review of the existing scholarly literature on metaphors and disease representation broadly before directly applying it to COVID-19. First, metaphor can be defined as a “characteristic of language” and “a device of the poetic imagination and the rhetorical flourish – a matter of extraordinary rather than ordinary language.” Second, academic scholarship on metaphors demonstrates the power metaphor holds on our mental processes. In 1980, scholars George Lakoff and Mark Johnson specifically developed the concept of metaphor and built off of Michael Reddy’s research of the conduit metaphor in Metaphors We Live By where they state that metaphors “can keep us from focusing on other aspects of the concept that are inconsistent with that metaphor.” Although many believe metaphors are simply for literature and creativity, I affirm Lakoff & Johnson in that they hold much more potential and value outside of a poem or speech.
Lakoff and Johnson argue metaphors are not merely ornamental devices. Metaphors can persuade people and influence behavior and knowledge production. Lakoff and Johnson claim that metaphors “structure how we perceive, how we think, and what we do,” shaping our society in ways that are not immediately obvious to us. Because metaphors are such an integral part to our lives and language, these influences can be difficult to distinguish upon first glance. Communication Studies scholar Leah Ceccarelli legitimizes their argument in her analysis of the metaphors used to discuss CRISPR technology, stating that metaphors act as “selective filters” and “can also undermine, mislead, and misrepresent” certain concepts. I apply the research of these scholars to the COVID-19 pandemic and its relationship to the shaping of audiences’ mental processes and how they cope with the virus.
Third, research and analysis of the SARS epidemic and its metaphors in the early 2000s offers a historical example of the effects of rhetorical conflation. This history serves as a backdrop for current rhetoric about the COVID-19 virus. Chris Hudson, a scholar that studies China’s social climate and intercultural communication, explored how SARS metaphors used during the 2002 crisis shaped meaning and understanding while also Othering an entire population of people through fear appeals. Hudson goes on to argue how “fear itself becomes a resource to be used in nation-building and social control.” Hudson explained how fear was primarily used for good in order to unite the country of China during this crisis and brought people together; however, for my analysis, I argue that these same methods are being used by President Trump in order to unite the American people against the Chinese population and separate these two populations.
In addition, the media and its coverage of the pandemic shape the way the virus is presented to the American public. Distinguished academic in political ecology Laura Eichelberger wrote extensively on the media’s reports of the 2002 SARS virus in America and the stigmatization that ensued in New York’s Chinatown. She explains how “media coverage is therefore a good source of data for measuring the dominant stigmatizing discourses during an epidemic” such as SARS. Specifically, she emphasizes how “the media racialized the epidemic by identifying Asian bodies as the source of contagion, contributing to their stigmatization” in New York which led to “the depiction of their communities as diseased, dangerous, and inferior.”  Technical Communication scholar Huiling Ding further supports Eichelberger’s argument toward the media, detailing how the Chinese American population during the 2002 SARS crisis “encountered so much racial targeting, shunning, and hate speech in their everyday life” and “degrees of racial profiling and targeting, public shunning, discrimination, stigmatization, and status losses.”  In the analysis that follows, I show that these same negative effects have reappeared in American society as Americans become increasingly more aggressive toward the Chinese population, blaming them for COVID-19’s disastrous effects.
First, President Trump tweeted using metaphorical language about COVID-19 on Twitter: “I always treated the Chinese Virus very seriously, and have done a very good job from the beginning, including my very early decision to close the ‘borders’ from China—against the wishes of almost all. Many lives were saved.” The underlying metaphorical concept and values at play here are blame shifting and xenophobia toward the Chinese population. Labeling COVID-19 as Chinese connects the virus to Chinese people, and for American viewers, this phrasing leads them to believe the Chinese are to blame for the current pandemic and tragedy. The rhetoric in this tweet could influence the way audiences think, act, behave, or relate to others; more specifically, it could cause audiences to shun or publicly scrutinize how the Chinese government handled the novel virus, leading to immense xenophobic attitudes in American society. The rhetoric also increases America’s pride in that Trump indicates his “very early decision” to close borders unlike other countries. His addition that “many lives were saved” through his closing of borders with China further implicates them as this enemy that America is fighting.As Eichelberger argues in her research on the effects of racializing the SARS virus, uniting the country through a common enemy “is part of the process and shapes further responses to a disease.” In this case, it is extended past simply COVID-19 but to the country of China as a whole.
Second, in a recent press conference with President Trump and various health officials on his team, concerns over the racialization of COVID-19 were expressed to the President. President Trump continued to use metaphorical language about COVID-19 in the press conference: “It comes from China. It is not racist at all. It comes from China. That’s why. It comes from China. I want to be accurate… The Chinese Government said… it was caused by American soldiers. That can’t happen.” The underlying metaphorical concept and value at play here is primarily blame shifting. He repeatedly emphasizes how the virus came from China, and his claim defending the U.S. Army further emphasizes the “innocence” of Americans in the spread of the deadly disease. It continues to bolster American Pride by emphasizing how blaming Americans for this disease “can’t happen.” The rhetoric in this press conference could influence the way audiences think, act, behave or relate to others. in that they see themselves as pure and completely innocent from the situation but view Chinese people as at fault. The news reporter even indicated the “reports of dozens of incidents of bias against Chinese Americans in [the United States].” Although in some cases it is not deliberate, these sentiments cause Americans to form a social hierarchy of immigrants mentally, labeling Chinese immigrants as “bad” or, in this case, “diseased.” It is evident that the same Othering that came from SARS almost two decades ago is beginning to repeat itself through the fearful and hateful attitudes that are developing from these statements.
Thirdly, through President Trump’s choice to racialize the virus, he has set the American people against the Chinese population, especially the rather large Chinese American population in the country itself. In studying the SARS epidemic, scholar Chengxin Pan notes that such diction is a “discursive practice that dichotomizes the West and China as self and other.”
Trump’s metaphor of “Chinese Virus” has indicated that “China be treated as a threatening, absolute other” against the United States, which is disturbingly similar to nations at war with one another. Trump defends his label of the virus, famously saying “it comes from China,” with unique pace and emphasis on the country’s name. This emphasis clearly indicates that Trump blames China for the disease. His addition that “many lives were saved” through his closing of borders with China further implicates them as this enemy that America is fighting. As Eichelberger argues in her research on the effects of racializing the SARS virus, uniting the country through a common enemy “is part of the process and shapes further responses to a disease” that, in this case, is extended past simply COVID-19 but to the country of China as a whole. Usage of the term “Chinese Virus” shifts the focus from developing strategies and methods to contain and cure the virus to placing blame on the Chinese population. Continued tweets and conferences such as these described continue to further distance Americans from Chinese people as they are repeatedly told that this pandemic originated in China, thus China is the one to blame for the world’s current crisis.
Rather than portraying the US and China uniting as a global power, the media coverage of COVID-19 seems to only separate societies and peoples through blame and xenophobic behavior toward on another.
metaphor analysis can help illuminate nuances in the rhetoric and coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic. As proposed by Lakoff and Johnson and Ceccarelli, the metaphors we use continue to shape and define our culture and society in ways we do not always realize. The 2002 SARS epidemic is a prime example of how media coverage of world leaders’ speech in the lay media influences actions, thoughts, and behaviors. Rhetoric can also have negative consequences such as Othering of the Chinese population by Americans as discussed previously. World leaders, such as American President Trump, hold great influence over the way citizens view and cope with a global health crisis, and they emphasize the country’s core values. Rhetoric scholars should view the current crisis of COVID-19 through the lens of the SARS epidemic, focusing on the dangerous consequences of stigmatization and othering of the Chinese population that were born through the metaphors used by world leaders and the media.
By racializing a disease, those affected by the disease (through illness, economic stress, or death) are inclined to associate such struggles and tragedies with that race. As reported in the press conference, Americans are already beginning to discriminate and publicly shun Chinese people, supporting my argument that Trump’s language is having profound effects on the mental processing and even physical actions of the American people. Although not intentionally, viewers of these tweets or press conferences are led to view China and Chinese people both abroad and in America as lesser than… or comparatively guilty. The recent closing of borders to immigrants further pushes negative ideas and fear of other cultures as well as peoples l. In this case, the metaphors used by President Trump highlight the blame of the disease while ignoring America’s responsibility or progressive steps toward handling its spread.
This analysis is only a starting point for such a rhetorical analysis, and other forms of analysis, such as rhetorical history or visual images, could prove insightful into the effects COVID-19 has created in modern society. One cannot truly grasp the full scope of the effects Trump’s language has created due to the novelty of the crisis, so further analysis and research at a later time once the effects of Trump’s rhetoric have developed in society like the SARS virus is necessary to truly understand its aftermath. Understanding these implications and realizing the blame shifting occurring through Trump’s use of “Chinese Virus” re-centers one’s focus on the true need during this pandemic: a cure.
CNBC. “Trump: Calling it the ‘Chinese virus’ not racist at all, it comes from China”, March 18, 2020. https://www.cnbc.com/video/2020/03/18/trump-calling-it-the-chinese-virus-not-racist-at all-it-comes-from-china.html.
Ding, Huiling. “Transnational Quarantine Rhetorics: Public Mobilization in SARS and in H1N1 Flu.” Journal of Medical Humanities 35 no.2 (2014): 191-210.
Eichelberger, Laura. “SARS and New York’s Chinatown: The Politics of Risk and Blame During an Epidemic of Fear.” Social Science & Medicine 65 no. 6 (2007): 1284-1295.
Hudson, Chris. “Singapore at War: SARS and its Metaphors,” in The Social Construction of SARS: Studies of a Health Communication Crisis, edited by John H. Powers and Xiaosui Xiao, Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2008, 163-77.
Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.
Nelson, Sarah Catherine, JH Yu, and Leah Ceccarelli. “How Metaphors About the Genome Constrain CRISPR Metaphors: Separating the ‘Text’ from Its ‘Editor’,” The American Journal of Bioethics, 15 no.12 (2015): 60-62.
Pan, Chengxin. The “China Threat” in American Self-Imagination: The Discursive Construction of Other as Power Politics, Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2004.
Trump, Donald, Twitter post, March 2020, 7:46 a.m.:
 World Health Organization, “WHO Timeline – COVID-19,” World Health Organization, accessed April 27, 2020. https://www.who.int/news-room/detail/08-04-2020-who-timeline—covid-19.
 Stephanie Segal and Dylan Gerstal. “The Global Economic Impacts of COVID-19,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, accessed April 22, 2020, https://www.csis.org/analysis/global-economic-impacts-covid-19.
 George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 3.
 Ibid., 10.
 Ibid., 4.
 Sarah Catherine Nelson, JH Yu, and Leah Ceccarelli. “How Metaphors About the Genome Constrain CRISPR Metaphors: Separating the ‘Text’ from Its ‘Editor’,” The American Journal of Bioethics, 15, no. 12 (2015): 60-62.
 Ibid., 61.
 According to Ding, Othering is a form of “segregational racism” where the dominant culture creates a “social hierarchy”, distinguishing between the “good” immigrant and the “bad” immigrant.
 Chris Hudson, “Singapore at War: SARS and its Metaphors,” in The Social Construction of SARS: Studies of a Health Communication Crisis, edited by John H. Powers and Xiaosui Xiao, (Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2008), 167.
 Laura Eichelberger, “SARS and New York’s Chinatown: The Politics of Risk and Blame During an Epidemic of Fear.” Social Science & Medicine, 65, no. 6 (2007): 1286.
 Ibid., 1288.
 Ibid., 1286.
 Huiling Ding, “Transnational Quarantine Rhetorics: Public Mobilization in SARS and in H1N1 Flu,” Journal of Medical Humanities, 35, no. 2 (2014): 191-210.
 Donald Trump, Twitter post, March 2020, 7:46 a.m., https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1240243188708839424.
 Laura Eichelberger, “SARS and New York’s Chinatown,” 1293.
 CNBC, “Trump: Calling it the ‘Chinese virus’ not racist at all, it comes from China,” March 18, 2020. https://www.cnbc.com/video/2020/03/18/trump-calling-it-the-chinese-virus-not-racist-at-all-it-comes-from-china.ht ml.
 Chengxin Pan, The “China Threat” in American Self-Imagination: The Discursive Construction of Other as Power Politics, Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2004), 307.
 Chengxin Pan, The “China Threat” in American Self-Imagination,” 306.
 CNBC, “Trump: Calling it the ‘Chinese virus’ not racist at all, it comes from China.”
 Donald Trump, Twitter post, March 2020, 7:46 a.m.,
 Laura Eichelberger,”SARS and New York’s Chinatown,” 1293.
 CNBC, “Trump: Calling it the ‘Chinese virus’ not racist at all, it comes from China.”
Acknowledgements: This analysis is dedicated to Rebecca Joy Steiner for introducing me to the world of rhetorical criticism and analysis.