Feb 12, 2021 | OPINION | By Emma McDermott | Illustration by Bibi Powers
The proliferation of COVID-19 to every corner of the world introduced a unique discussion around naming. There was much deliberation in searching for a name that did not discriminate against race, geographic location, gender or status. In the U.S. –– which is no city on a hill for racial equality, in any sense of the phrase –– Chinese Americans and Asian Americans at large experienced racism in all its despicable forms.
There is a long history of naming viruses after their location of origin. The Ebola virus is named for the Ebola river. Zika virus comes from the Zika Forest. West Nile virus is named after the Western Nile. MERS stands for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome.
There’s also the Spanish Flu, whose origin, interestingly enough, is unknown but was misunderstood as originating in Spain because the Spanish media covered the spread of the pandemic in the greatest detail.
Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever is a tick-borne disease that was first identified in Idaho. And then there’s Guinea Worm, whose first evidence of existence dates back to 1550 BCE but was named accordingly after Europeans saw it on the coast of West Africa in the 1600s.
Scientists and public health officials warn of the dangers of naming viruses after places. Doing so can be misleading, and even inaccurate, as can be seen in the situation of the Spanish Flu.
In the case of COVID-19, including “China” or “Wuhan” in the name would not have served much purpose other than to stigmatize Chinese people and Asian people since the virus had spread to every continent by the time there was talk about what to label it. Additionally, scientists –– and really any decent person with the capacity to reason, for that matter –– understand that attaching geographic names to viruses can, and often does, stigmatize specific groups of people associated with or from that location.
In the U.S., where the former leader of the free world tossed racist phrases like “Kung Flu” around with pleasure, hate crimes against Chinese and Asian Americans reportedly increased. The attitude of the past presidential administration was of the disposition that COVID-19 originated in China, thus making it China’s fault, tacitly extending blame on Chinese and Asian Americans and giving people license to discriminate against them.
When asked in March about his deliberate continued usage of the phrase “Chinese virus” after it had been made clear to him that this term is both inaccurate and bigoted, the twice-impeached former president reasoned, “It comes from China. It’s not racist at all, no, not at all. It comes from China, that’s why. I want to be accurate.”
Reporters at White House Press Briefings reinforced that the medical community advised against using such racialized phrases –– not only because they were inaccurate but also because of the serious social consequences of such language.
As the world furiously raced to discover a vaccine for COVID-19, the virus was mutating, and several new variants are currently circulating globally. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a variant called B.1.1.7 was identified in the United Kingdom in the fall of 2020, a variant called B.1.351 was identified in South Africa in October of 2020, and a variant called P.1 was identified in Brazil in January of 2021.
These mutations are widely referred to as “U.K. variant,” “South African variant,” and “Brazil variant,” because those are the locations in which they were first identified, but that does not necessarily mean the mutations originated there.
Although the dangers of race-based hate and discrimination are not of equal concern as a result of referring to these three known variants by their locations of identification, the move away from naming viruses by their origins, as was done in the naming of COVID-19, is wise and should continue.
This is in no way an attempt to equate the plethora of experiences –– and what has been described has been truly awful –– of Chinese people and Asian people with the experiences –– if that’s even the right term, here –– of people living in the U.K., South Africa, and Brazil. Rather, this is an argument that it was smart, reasonable, and good of the scientific community and general population to coin a term that is apolitical and in no way references location, race, ethnicity or nationality.
Moving forward, it would be best to maintain the precedent set in naming the disease caused by the current pandemic “COVID-19” as opposed to being selective about when it’s permissible to refer to a disease or virus by its location of origin. That, I fear, actually fuels the argument that the most recent former occupant of the White House made in defense of his shameful vocabulary.