Essex Coun. Chris Vander Doelen is refusing to back down after he set off a torrent of online criticism over his use of the term “Chinese flu” to describe his recent COVID-19 diagnosis.
The term was often used by former U.S. president Donald Trump and has been blamed for an increase of hate crimes against Asian-Americans and Asian-Canadians.
In an April 9 Twitter post Vander Doelen said: “Damn. My test for the Chinese flu came back positive. So, I (have to) lay low for another week — a punishment worse than the illness proved to be.”
There have been calls for Vander Doelen to resign and demands for an investigation by the town’s integrity commissioner.
Contacted Sunday, Essex Mayor Larry Snively said he has spoken to Vander Doelen about the comments and asked the Ward 3 councillor to make a public apology. However, Snively said an apology is not likely.
“I said to him the public is waiting for an apology from you Chris and he said I’m not going to apologize, I didn’t say anything wrong.”
Vander Doelen confirmed Sunday what he said to Snively and said he won’t be making a public apology.
“I’ve had the disease too; why can’t I talk about my disease the way I want to talk about it?,” he said. “Why do we need to pussyfoot around the world’s most powerful and dangerous regime. I think the concerns here are completely misplaced.”
Vander Doelen said many of the Twitter commentators criticizing him have a political agenda.
“To claim it’s spreading hate by pointing out the fact the flu came from China is ridiculous. It’s no more hate than referring to Dutch elm disease as hate. It’s not. This is a modern woke, take down, lynch mob — a woke lynch mob, that’s what it is.”
He said the next municipal election will tell how politically damaging the comments are.
Vander Doelen said many of his critics are on the left side of the political spectrum.
“This is what happens if you’re an effective conservative. Eventually the mob comes for you.
“We’ll see if my constituents here believe this or they don’t but I’ve been getting a lot of support. A lot of people are telling me don’t back down, don’t apologize, you’re absolutely right, thank God someone’s telling the truth.”
Vander Doelen said he first became sick last Sunday, was tested mid-week and told Friday he tested positive. He’s now under quarantine.
“I’m doing fine. I’m at 85 per cent. I’m tired. I’m sleeping a lot. But I’ve worked through harder flus that this. That’s the whole reason for doing this. I thought I was doing a public service by trying to take some of the fear out of this thing.
“All we’re getting is stories of apocalyptic doom from the media and I haven’t seen many accounts of people coming just through it as if it’s not a life-threatening event … that’s what I was hoping to do with the tweets.”
As of Monday morning, Vander Doelen’s post remained on Twitter. But a post in which the Essex councillor said COVID-19 stood for Chinese Origin Virus has been removed.
Replying to one online critic, Vander Doelen said: “Oh you pathetic socialist git. COVid stands for ‘Chinese Origin Virus etc.’ Only apologists for their murderous regime take issue with it.”
COVID-19 stands for Coronavirus Disease in 2019, according to the World Health Organization.
“I removed that tweet because it might be true but the likelihood is that’s not true,” he said. “Some people assured me oh no it is true but they changed it later. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. I can’t prove it so I took it down.”
Snively said any investigation by the integrity commission would examine whether the Ward 3 councillor had violated the town code of conduct.
Robert Swayze, a lawyer who acts as the integrity commissioner for numerous Ontario municipalities, could not be reached for comment Sunday.
In a public statement Saturday, Snively said the comments by Vander Doelen did not reflect “the beliefs” of council or the Town of Essex. He repeated those comments Sunday. “Like I say, this is Mr. Vander Doelen’s opinion. His opinion is his opinion and I’m going to stress this, this is not the opinion of the rest of council.”
It was inappropriate and I believe it was racist. I think this is the straw that broke the camel’s back…. Saying it’s just the flu and staying home is worse than the actual virus — many people have died. He’s mocking the virus itself. It’s painful to people who lost somebody to the virus.
Liwei Sun, a Canadian of Chinese origin who lives in Essex, said she was shocked and disappointed by Vander Doelen’s use of the term Chinese virus to describe COVID-19.
“Personally, I can give him some allowance for thinking about the virus, where it came from and pointing fingers …. considering he might be scared for himself and his family after being tested positive.
“He is an elected official and he used Twitter as a public platform that is definitely inappropriate. If I use the word unwise, that’s too polite a word. What he did was spread a hate crime.”
Sun and her family came to Canada from China 20 years ago. A physician in China, she now teaches biology at a Windsor high school.
“My reaction has two parts: the first part is his political career is done, the second part is that on a brighter note, only one person has liked his tweet so far…. I am forever an optimist.”
Despite Vander Doelen’s comments, Sun said she hopes he makes a full recovery.
“Even though I am appalled I hope Chris can feel my goodwill towards him. I do wish him a speedy recovery. I think the most important message at this time, even during the pandemic, is we really need to be kinder to each other — from one person to another person,” she said.
Doug Sartori, a local political commentator, said the comments may not hurt Vander Doelen politically if he decides to run for re-election in Ward 3.
“I’m not so sure how it hurts or helps him in his ward,” he said. “No. 1, I don’t think folks in his ward are particularly the demographic that are super active on Twitter — the location where Mr. Vander Doelen makes a lot of this sort of comment. Secondly, I think there is an appetite in the county for some the things Mr. Vander Doelen says.”
Sartori, a left-leaning panelist on the Windsor-based Rose City Politics podcast, said he has followed Vander Doelen’s career from his days as a Windsor Star columnist. He admits he is a “partisan” and he said he frequently disagrees with Vander Doelen’s opinions. But he said he has a grudging admiration for a politician who says what he thinks — even in the face of heated criticism.
“It’s better when people stick by their words and don’t try to walk the line in the middle of the road. I’d much rather know where an elected official stands rather than wondering what they are thinking. For better or worse, you know what Vander Doelen is really thinking,” Sartori said.
He described Vander Doelen as a “pretty far-right Canadian politician” and said his comments may have scuttled any hopes he may have of running for higher office.
“I was speaking with some folks today and we were speculating whether he would run for mayor of Essex next time around. I think in a bigger race with more scrutiny, these comments are not going to serve him well,” Sartori said.
Essex Coun. Sherry Bondy, who has clashed with Vander Doelen in the past, said he needs to apologize. She said the comments were insensitive to people who have lost loved ones to COVID.
“It was inappropriate and I believe it was racist. I think this is the straw that broke the camel’s back…. Saying it’s just the flu and staying home is worse than the actual virus — many people have died. He’s mocking the virus itself. It’s painful to people who lost somebody to the virus.”
Prof. Peter Wang, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto and Memorial University in Newfoundland, said the incidence of anti-Asian racism has increased during the pandemic.
He said a study he led surveyed 754 Chinese-Canadians and showed 11 per cent had experienced some sort of racism at the start of the pandemic in early 2020. The figure jumped to 36 per cent in February-March of this year. Over 950 were surveyed.
Wang said there is direct link between the rhetoric used by Trump and an increase in anti-Asian racism in the United States.
“It is not acceptable to label, to connect the Chinese virus or the Chinese flu with people from Asian countries, particularly from China,” he said.
He said Vander Doelen, as an elected official, should apologize.
“I agree with the mayor, he should make some sort of formal apology. I read his explanation and he was talking about his choice of words, I think that’s a pretext, this is an excuse. Chinese flu, Chinese virus already has a very strong racism meaning.”
He said Trump used the same language and “everyone knows the story behind it.”
Wang said the two surveys revealed most of the anti-Chinese racism was verbal. He said he and his colleagues plan to launch another survey this week to explore the exact nature of the racism experienced by Chinese Canadians, but also explore how the Chinese community in Canada feels the situation can be improved.
He said changes in the law, more public information and more communication between Asians and non-Asians may be some of the options considered in the survey.
The Essex County Chinese Canadian Association (ECCCA) released a statement Saturday also wishing Vander Doelen well but condemning his comments as “unacceptable for someone in his position holding public office.”
The ECCCA said use of the term Chinese flu to describe his diagnosis was a “racial slur” and “xenophobic attack.”
“Mr. Vander Doelen must surely be aware of the anti-Asian attacks in Canada over the past year — attacks that have, per capita, exceeded those reported in the U.S.,” the ECCCA said.