Coronavirus: university president hits out at Hong Kong student union’s ‘Chinese pneumonia’ statement for ‘harming global Covid-19 fight’

Chan Ho-him

The president of a university in Hong Kong has accused its student union of using language that harms the global fight against Covid-19 when it referred to the disease as “Chinese pneumonia” in remarks he warned could promote discrimination and social division.

Wei Shyy, of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), also criticised the way the students distributed funding to help reduce the spread of infection, urging them to do so “irrespective of origin, political views, or other differences”.

A member of staff at HKUST was confirmed with the coronavirus on Wednesday after returning from a trip to the United States.

In a statement on Facebook that night, the student union referred to the case, saying it would work with the university to provide the latest coronavirus information to students.

The group also detailed the support it had provided to students, including funding those from Korea and Taiwan to buy masks and other protective gear.

Professor Wei Shyy, of HKUST, has written to staff and students that it is wrong to refer to Covid-19 as “Chinese pneumonia”. Photo: Edward Wong

The statement said: “Anything made in China could not last long. We believe global cooperation could no doubt defeat the Chinese pneumonia, and we also hope that countries from around the world can learn from Hong Kong that we don’t trust the Chinese government’s notification mechanism after the outbreak of Sars [severe acute respiratory syndrome].”

“All countries should remember the source of the Chinese pneumonia and the reason why it spread, and stay alert and be careful, so that another Chinese virus can be avoided.”

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In a letter to staff and students on Thursday, Shyy said it was regrettable the student union had used the term “Chinese pneumonia”, referring to the World Health Organisation’s position that no disease should be named based on a geographical location, animal, individual or group of people.

“Doing so could not only promote discrimination and stigmatisation, but could also divert the public’s attention and efforts in combating the disease, which is now affecting nearly the whole world,” he said.

“Let’s all be clear that the official name of this pandemic adopted by WHO is Covid-19.”

Shyy said although the union was a separate legal entity, and the views it expressed did not represent the university’s, it was expected to support the well-being of all students in a fair and non-discriminatory manner.

The president also said he found it surprising and unreasonable for the union to fund students from certain parts of the world and not others.

“SU [the student union] is expected to represent and support all students of HKUST irrespective of origin, political views, or other differences,” he said.

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Responding to Shyy’s letter, the student union insisted its use of the term was reasonable in the same way German measles and Japanese encephalitis had also been named after geographical locations.

The student union continued to use the term “Chinese pneumonia” when referring on Friday night to a new Covid-19 case, a part-time postgraduate student at the university.

A row has broken out between the HKUST president and the student body over the origins and naming of the disease caused by the coronavirus. Photo: Winson Wong

“The name of the disease should naturally be related to the source of it,” a member of the student union told the Post.

“WHO’s previous decisions have also sometimes been unreasonable, such as delaying the categorisation of the disease as a pandemic.”

The student union said funding to combat the virus was given to the Korean Students’ Association and Taiwanese Students’ Association because those bodies fell directly under the student union. That was not the case for the Mainland Students and Scholars Society, the union added.

The Post has contacted HKUST for comment but had not received a response by the time it went to press.

The naming and origin of the coronavirus have sparked a war of words between Washington and Beijing in recent days.

US President Donald Trump blamed the Covid-19 outbreak on a “Chinese virus”, after Zhao Lijian, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, tweeted that the virus could be linked to the US army’s participation in the Military World Games held in Wuhan in October.

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