COLUMBUS, Ohio – Dozens of Asian American residents of the suburb that Ohio’s Republican lieutenant governor calls home penned a letter to him Wednesday, citing their concerns over a tweet he sent referring to the “Wuhan virus” and the fears they have for the safety of their children because of such comments.
"Lt. Governor Husted, your choice of words has only raised the anxiety and fear that Asians and Asian Americans in Upper Arlington are currently experiencing," the letter obtained by the local NBC affiliate read.
“Our children have been targeted for bullying and abuse in the district well before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but that abuse has increased significantly in the last 14 months and has reached levels that have brought news media attention to our doorsteps," the letter continued. “Our children are the classmates, friends, and neighbors of your children.”
The letter to the lieutenant governor was signed by nearly 70 members and families of the Asian community in Upper Arlington, a suburb of Columbus.
It came in response to a March 26 tweet where Husted linked to an article in which Robert Redfield, the ex-director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said, without citing evidence, that he believed the virus originated in a lab in Wuhan.
“So it appears it was the Wuhan Virus after all?” Husted tweeted Friday from his personal account.
His intention with the tweet, Husted said in an interview with The Associated Press earlier on Wednesday, was to criticize the Chinese government.
“I was just pointing out that this is an international crisis, in my opinion, that the Chinese government is responsible for and I wanted an independent investigation,” he said. “So I wasn’t trying to accomplish anything that the political left or political right thinks that I might have from that tweet other than to draw attention to the issue.”
The claim that COVID-19 originated in a lab in Wuhan has been scrutinized in the past year by health officials, including the leading U.S. infectious disease specialist, Dr. Anthony Fauci.
The claim was further muddied when a draft obtained by The AP on Monday and formally published Tuesday from the World Health Organization’s inquiry said it was “extremely unlikely” that the virus emerged accidentally from a Chinese laboratory and was likely spread from animals to humans.
Some replies on the original post supported Husted for standing up to China. More numerous were critical replies from Twitter users who said such rhetoric feeds into hate and violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
The organization Stop AAPI Hate released a report last month that showed it received more than 3,800 reports in the U.S. of episodes ranging from shunning and verbal harassment to assault from March 2020 to Feb. 28 of this year. Many of the confrontations were linked to misconceptions around the virus.
A gunman walked into three spas on March 16 in the Atlanta area, killing eight people, six of them Asian women, though police have yet to designate the shootings as a hate crime. The shock was still fresh when a man was caught on surveillance video Monday in New York City kicking an Asian American woman and stomping on her face while, police say, he shouted anti-Asian slurs.
For Democratic State Sen. Tina Maharath, the first Asian American woman elected to the Ohio General Assembly, Husted's tweet was the second time that week she heard an elected official call the coronavirus that first emerged in Wuhan, China, the “Wuhan virus,” she said.
Maharath said Husted and others are following the lead of former President Donald Trump, who sometimes used overtly racist terms to refer to the virus.
“When you say those things, such as attach locations or ethnicities to the disease, it creates racial profiling, and then it turns into xenophobic behavior,” Maharath said. “And when leaders with that kind of power repeat those terms in confidence and double down on it, it leads to more hate crimes.”
Two days before Husted's tweet, Republican Ohio Sen. Terry Johnson mentioned the “Wuhan virus” on the chamber floor.
“We called it the Wuhan virus because that’s where it came from,” Johnson said. “We always called viruses by where they came from, but now we don’t even do that because of all this political correctness.”
Senate Republican spokesperson John Fortney said the overreaction to the phrase is a part of cancel culture, adding that it is important to question the origin of the deadly virus.
In the past century, international health experts have intentionally avoided naming diseases after the city or region of origin because of potential stigma. In 2015, the World Health Organization issued guidelines that discouraged the use of geographic locations, animals or groups of people in naming diseases.
But Husted remained firm in his AP interview.
“On Twitter, there were a lot of people who are from what I will call the cancel culture, who immediately assumed that there was a racial element to the tweet," Husted said, “which there wasn’t any.”
His neighbors, however, believe Husted's words matter, regardless of intention, and offered an invitation to “meet personally to discuss the issues of violence and hatred towards Ohio’s Asian and Asian American citizens.”
“As Lt. Governor, you are uniquely positioned to represent and protect the interests and safety of all Ohioans,” the letter stated. “As a resident of Upper Arlington, and our Lt. Governor, you are uniquely situated and have the power to take action to protect the families of our community. To protect all of our families.”
This story has been corrected to show that the former CDC director's name is Robert Redfield, not Robert Redford.
Farnoush Amiri is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.