Trump sparks anger by calling coronavirus the ‘Chinese virus’

© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Shawn Thew/EPA

The US president, Donald Trump, has referred to the global coronavirus outbreak as “the Chinese virus,” escalating a deepening US-China diplomatic spat over the disease.

Trump, after giving an address on Monday warning of a possible recession, posted on Twitter: “The United States will be powerfully supporting those industries, like Airlines and others, that are particularly affected by the Chinese Virus. We will be stronger than ever before!”

The World Health Organization has advised against terms that link the virus to China or the city of Wuhan, where it was first detected, in order to avoid discrimination or stigmatisation.

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The comment comes as Beijing and Washington appeared to be locked in a game of shifting blame. Last week, outspoken official Zhao Lijian from China’s ministry of foreign affairs accused the US military of bringing the virus to Wuhan. The US summoned Chinese ambassador Cui Tiankai over the comment and issued a “stern” warning to Cui.

On Monday, the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, also issued “strong US objections” in a phone call with top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi. According to Chinese state broadcaster CCTV, Yang also issued “strong objections” to attempts by the US to “slander and smear” China’s efforts in combatting the virus.

Yang said such efforts would “not succeed” and that any harm to Chinese interests would invite retaliation.

As the global infections have surpassed those within China, Chinese diplomats and officials have begun pushing the idea that the virus did not originate within China.

Observers say both sides appear to be deflecting domestic criticism. Trump’s administration has been accused of moving too slowly to respond to the virus while Chinese authorities have been accused of covering up initial warnings about the outbreak and suppressing information throughout the crisis.

“This is his pathetic attempt at distracting people from his competence but it won’t work,” one internet user wrote on Weibo, among hundreds of angry and mocking comments over Trump’s remark. “Just when you think he could not go any lower,” another wrote on the discussion forum, Douban. “I am both laughing and speechless,” another said on Weibo.

The state-run tabloid Global Times posted on Twitter, which is blocked in China, that Trump was trying to “pass the buck”.

© Photograph: Shawn Thew/EPA US President Donald J. Trump, with members of the coronavirus Task Force, hosts a Coronavirus Task Force press briefing
epa08299190 US President Donald J. Trump, with members of the coronavirus Task Force, responds to a question from the news media during a Coronavirus Task Force press briefing at the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 16 March 2020. EPA/SHAWN THEW

While the number of cases spikes around the world, new infections in China have dramatically decreased. On Tuesday, there was just one domestic case of the virus recorded in China, and 20 “imported” cases.

Chinese state media has praised Beijing’s efforts in containing the virus. On Tuesday, an editorial in the state-run China Daily said that the world should learn from China’s example in aggressively quarantining and detecting the virus. At the height of the outbreak in China, local governments were criticised for excessive measures and lack of supplies and capacity.

The Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, said last week that China’s efforts had bought the world “precious time” to respond to the outbreak.

On Tuesday China’s state planner said the economy would return to normal in the second quarter.

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More than 182,000 people have now been infected with the virus, which has claimed the lives of more than 7,000 people, of which more than 3,000 deaths were in mainland China.

In the US, fallout from the spread of the outbreak hit the campaign trail, with voting in the Democratic primary in Ohio called off. San Francisco and five other Bay Area counties ordered all residents to stay at home in a drastic move similar to ones taken in Italy, Spain, France and China, but the first of its kind in the US. Trump also recommended Americans avoid gathering in groups of more than 10.

In other developments around the world:

  • The EU will close all external borders for 30 days from Tuesday morning, but EU citizens will be allowed to return.

  • Hong Kong announced it would require all arriving foreign travellers to go into two-week isolation.

  • In France, Emmanuel Macron put the country into almost total lockdown. In a 20 minute live broadcast, the president repeated several times: “We are at war” and said: “all infractions will be punished”.

  • New Zealand announced an enormous spending package to fight the economic effects of Covid-19.

  • Britons were told to curtail social interactions. The new government advice, something of a U-turn, came during the prime minister’s first daily press conference.

  • Hundreds of prisoners escaped from prisons in São Paulo state in the south-east of Brazil on Monday, the day before their day-release privileges were due to be suspended over the coronavirus outbreak.

  • The Taj Mahal in India closed to tourists.