“China is to blame because the culture where people eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that,” Cornyn told reporters. “These viruses are transmitted from the animal to the people, and that’s why China has been the source of a lot of these viruses like SARS, like MERS, the swine flu, and now the coronavirus.”
The senator’s comment was immediately panned as racist by Democrats and critics on social media. The Texas Democratic Party said Cornyn was “dog-whistling” and urged him to focus on preventing the spread of covid-19. Cornyn did not immediately return a request for comment from The Washington Post.
In addition to the controversial language, much in the Texas senator’s comment is either wrong or leaves out important context.
The first human infections involving the novel coronavirus did originate in China, as did the strain of coronavirus that caused the 2003 SARS epidemic.
But neither the 2012 MERS outbreak nor the 2009 swine flu epidemics started there.
MERS, short for “Middle East respiratory syndrome,” reflects that the first human cases of the disease were first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012, according to the World Health Organization. The largest outbreaks of MERS occurred in Saudi Arabia — where 80 percent of human MERS infections have occurred — as well as the United Arab Emirates and South Korea.
When it comes to the 2009 swine flu pandemic, it started off, as its name suggests, infecting pigs in Mexico and the United States. The H1N1 virus jumped from North American pig herds to infect humans in the spring of 2009, with the first cases being recorded in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Cornyn also appeared to be off-base about the specific animals that pass other viral infections to people. None of the diseases he mentioned are linked to dogs and snakes, according to the CDC. Bats do carry coronaviruses, but another animal usually catches the virus from a bat before passing it on to a human.
Scientists believe contact with civet cats, which had probably been infected with a coronavirus by bats at a live-animal market, caused the 2003 SARS outbreak in China, according to the CDC. And contact with camels is the likely reason for the MERS outbreak in Saudi Arabia, the WHO said.
Cornyn’s comment appears to capitalize on American taboos against eating certain animals, but the science does not support the suggestion that eating Chinese dishes that include bat, snake or dog meat have contributed directly to the spread of coronavirus, SARS, MERS or swine flu.
And you don’t have to travel as far as China to eat snake meat. In Cornyn’s home state of Texas, several towns host annual festivals where residents milk rattlesnakes for venom to be used in antivenin and fry up filets of snake flesh as a novelty snack.
Cornyn, who published a column last year on his Senate website titled, “The Texas Snake Man: Jackie Bibby and His Rattlesnake Roundups,” has recognized that some people in Texas chow down on snakes.
“Festivals and roundups all across the state showcase daredevil handlers performing bold and dangerous acts, demonstrations of milking the venomous snakes to produce the antidote, and fryers filled with fresh rattlesnake meat, seasoned with garlic and lemon for taste,” the column reads.
Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), who chairs the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, condemned Cornyn’s comment, calling it “disgusting.”
“Disparaging an entire ethnic group and culture like this is bigotry, plain and simple,” she said in a statement Wednesday. “Over the past few days, Trump has repeatedly labeled this pandemic as the ‘Chinese virus,’ and his loyal Republican followers have come to his defense in increasingly hateful terms. Their words are inciting racism and violence against Asian Americans in the United States.”
Cornyn is hardly alone in placing blame on China. Trump has repeatedly done so at news conferences and online in recent weeks.
Early on, Trump dismissed concerns about the impending pandemic. He said the risk in the United States was limited to “one person coming in from China.”
“We have it under control,” he said on CNBC in January. “It’s going to be just fine.”
As the president has adopted a more serious tone to discuss the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., he has also increasingly turned to calling it “the Chinese virus.”
“It’s not racist at all,” Trump told reporters Wednesday. “Not at all. It comes from China. That’s why. I want to be accurate.”
Several GOP lawmakers, including Cornyn, have followed suit, even after the CDC and WHO rejected the label earlier this month and asked officials to use either “novel coronavirus” or “covid-19” to describe the disease.
Some have argued the use of the term is a way to shift attention away from the Trump administration’s failures in addressing the covid-19 outbreak early on. Other critics have said blaming China fans anti-Asian American hate, reignites old racist tropes and increases the risk of hate crimes and xenophobic attacks.
“The president’s view that the virus was a Chinese problem contributed to his failure to understand the importance of testing people domestically for the virus and of having enough medical equipment to deal with the outbreak,” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) wrote Wednesday in an op-ed for The Washington Post. “I wish the president could set aside his xenophobia for the moment while we try to keep Americans from dying.”