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Councillor apologizes for offence caused after use of term ‘Wuhan Virus’

A screenshot of the electronic Kingston City Council meeting held on Tuesday, Jun. 16, 2020 shows the moment Councillor Robert Kiley realized his colleague Councillor Simon Chapelle referred to COVID-19 as the ‘Wuhan virus.’

Councillor Simon Chapelle is apologizing for any offence he may have caused after he referred to COVID-19 as the “Wuhan virus” at the City Council meeting on Tuesday, Jun. 16, 2020.

During that meeting, councillors debated over a motion to remove delegated authorities that had been given to CAO Lanie Hurdle just after the City of Kingston declared a state of emergency with regard to the COVID-19 pandemic. In that debate, Councillor Chapelle referred to the virus as the “Wuhan virus” while discussing the low case count here in the Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington (KLF&A) region.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been some confusion around what the actual name of the virus is, with many people referring to it as “the coronavirus.” In fact, there are many forms of coronaviruses, and the actual scientific name for the virus causing the current pandemic is SARS-CoV-2, which stands for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2. The disease the virus causes is referred to scientifically as COVID-19, but, generally speaking, the majority of people refer to the overall pandemic as the COVID-19 pandemic.

The use of the terms “China virus” or “Wuhan virus”, advanced particularly by US President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, has been frowned upon by many, including the medical, scientific and international diplomatic communities. In late March, the insistence on referring to the virus as “Wuhan Virus” led to G7 ministers failing to release a joint statement on COVID-19.

While no other members of Council reacted to Chapelle’s use of the term, Councillor Robert Kiley showed immediate surprise, his eyes widening just one second after Chapelle said it.

“I was actually going to call a point of order,” Kiley said after the meeting, “It all happened so quickly.”

Kiley continued, explaining his objection to the term and its use around the horseshoe.

“COVID-19, as it’s correctly called, is a global pandemic. It impacts people from every country, class, and race, though it has particularly serious consequences for marginalized communities. The novel coronavirus spreads to and from all peoples if precautions are not taken, no matter where you are or where you are from,” he said.

“That’s why we need to stay focused on a holistic, health-first approach: so we can beat the pandemic the world over.”

The use of the term also comes at a time when race relations are top of mind for people around the world, with demonstrations taking place internationally, across Canada, and even here in Kingston in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. At a time when many are speaking to the importance of diversity and acceptance, calling COVID-19 the “Wuhan virus” doesn’t sit well with many, including those of Chinese-Canadian descent.

“He might have used the term ‘the Wuhan virus’ to provoke discussions in the Council (which may not be a bad thing) or may have strong feelings against China or Chinese in general which will make (a person) a racist. I am surprised that other councillors and the mayor did not object to the term used,” said Hay Boon Mak, President of the Chinese-Canadian Association of Kingston and District, noting that he does not know Councillor Chapelle at all.

“Silence will be taken to mean that the governing body of the City of Kingston accepts the term ‘the Wuhan virus’ as appropriate. His statement will now be in the meeting record. Kingston will appear to be willing to follow President Trump in this issue,” Mak continued.

“I hope the City will vote to reprimand Councillor Chapelle in the next meeting and publish an apology for the oversight of not censuring Councillor Chapelle’s use of the term ‘the Wuhan virus’ as inappropriate.”

Mayor Bryan Paterson also voiced opposition to Chapelle’s use of the term.

“I strongly disagree with Councillor Chapelle’s characterization of COVID-19. Referring to a virus based on its place of origin may have been accepted in the past, but in my view this fuels stigma and discrimination that is both unfair and wrong,” Paterson said.

“I refer to the COVID-19 virus by its medically correct name, and I encourage everyone in our community to do the same.”

When Kingstonist initially requested an interview with Chapelle, the councillor responded by directing this reporter to view a clip of Real Time with Bill Maher entitled ‘New Rule: Virus Shaming.’ Chapelle said that he usually doesn’t like what Maher says, but called the clip “spot on.”

In that clip, which can be viewed here, Maher talks about referring to the virus as COVID-19 as being a matter of political correctness. He also incorrectly claims that diseases are almost always named by their place of origin. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), that is simply not the case.

“The World Health Organization (WHO), in consultation and collaboration with the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), has identified best practices for the naming of new human diseases, with the aim to minimize unnecessary negative impact of disease names on trade, travel, tourism or animal welfare, and avoid causing offence to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups,” WHO said in a three page document on best practices for the naming of new human infectious diseases.

When asked again for an interview time slot on Wednesday, Jun. 17, 2020, Chapelle explained that he had overlapping conference calls and would be unable to speak with Kingstonist. He did, however, issue the following statement.

Councillor Simon Chapelle. Photo by Tori Stafford.

“It has been brought to my attention that there are some people who may have objected to my use of the term ‘Wuhan Virus’ at the last Kingston City Council meeting. I apologize if this offended anyone, as it was most certainly not my intent to do so,” Chapelle said in an email. “In future, I will work hard to refer to the disease as COVID-19 or the novel coronavirus, as so named by the World Health Organization.”

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