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Naming COVID: From Places to the Greek Alphabet

Deutsche Welle |
From the Spanish flu to the "Wuhan virus," naming diseases after their country of origin has sparked xenophobia and racism. COVID variants named after the Greek alphabet are also being weaponized.

Blaming foreign countries for diseases — as opposed to inadequate local health responses, for example — has long been a ploy to deflect responsibility.

Former US President Donald Trump started to refer to the coronavirus as the "China virus" and even the highly derogatory "Kung Flu," when he came under pressure due to upward-spiraling case numbers at home, according to Jerome Viala-Gaudefroy, assistant lecturer at CY Cergy Paris Université and expert on the politics of naming diseases.

The so-called Spanish flu — a devastating virus that killed millions during World War I — likely originated in the US but was associated with Spain, the country where it was first identified, as "a way to deflect," said Viala-Gaudefroy.

As Trump and the Republican party in 2020 continued to brand the coronavirus the "Chinese flu," and perpetuated the unfounded theory that it was hatched in a Wuhan lab, Asian-Americans were increasingly targeted and attacked.

Trump also liked to invoke war metaphors when referring to the virus, including phrases like "the invisible enemy," noted Viala-Gaudefroy, in an effort to project the image of fighting a foreign invasion.

So too across Northern India, "Chinese-looking" locals living in areas bordering Chinafaced abuse and were forced to quarantine — even without COVID symptoms. 

This is why the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2015 issued a best practices directive for naming new diseases that suggested avoiding "offense to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups."

"COVID-19-related expressions of racism and xenophobia online have included harassment, hate speech, proliferation of discriminatory stereotypes, and conspiracy theories," said E. Tendayi Achiume, UN Special Rapporteur on racism in March 2020. "Not surprisingly, leaders who are attempting to attribute COVID-19 to certain national or ethnic groups are the very same nationalist populist leaders who have made racist and xenophobic rhetoric central to their political platforms."

New variant names — same problem

When the coronvirus mutated into new variants, they were again referred to after places of origin, including the so-called Indian variant.

The racialization or ethnicization of these variants' names motivated the WHO in May 2021, nearly 18 months after the virus first emerged, to instead use Greek letters to designate variants of COVID-19, with the Indian variant becoming "delta."

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Anti-Asian racism on the rise in Germany since COVID-19

Maria Van Kerkhove, a senior technical official at the WHO who specializes in the body's response to COVID-19, said the name change should lessen the stigma faced by countries.

"No country should be stigmatized for detecting and reporting COVID variants," she said.

But after the Greek alphabet was adopted as a neutral way of naming COVID variants, problems have again emerged as the letter "xi" was seen as too close to the name of Chinese leader Xi Jinping — and would again stoke anti-Asian sentiment.

So the latest variant that was first detected in South Africa was dubbed "omicron" (B.1.1.529). Yet it was too late. Media outlets had already been referring to the COVID strain as the South Africa variant — reinforcing an association with Africa, and even Black people.

Indeed, the Sunday edition of the German daily newspaper, the Rheinpfalz am Sonntag, ran a front page headline, "The virus from Africa is with us," above a picture of a black woman and child. The newspaper apologized, but the damage was done.

Giorgina Kazungu-Haß, a Social Democratic Party (SPD) member in the Rhineland-Palatinate parliament in western Germany where the publication is located, tweeted ironically that the front page "will be great for BPoC" — referring to Black People of Color.

Disputed origins and disinformation

As was the case with the Spanish flu, it turns out that the omicron variant very possibly originated outside of South Africa. On Tuesday, Associated Press reported that Dutch health authorities discovered omicron in local samples from November 19, which is five days before it was announced that South Africa had identified the strain.

Ebola was another pandemic that was associated with Africa and Blackness, with far right commentators and politicians coining the racist term "Obola" — a cross between Ebola and Barack Obama, at the time US President (and an African-American) — to politicize and racialize the disease.

This again is why the WHO cautions against names like Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), or even Lyme disease — which refers to the town in Connecticut where the vector-borne bacterial disease was identified.

Avoiding virus associations

Despite the news on the ambiguous origins of the omicron virus, nations continue to victimize South African citizens as travel bans and border restrictions against the country are introduced. 

"The problem is that countries are going to avoid reporting new variants so that they're not associated with them," said Viala-Gaudefroy, referring to the economic fallout that also comes with being perceived as a source of COVID mutations.

"We must refer to viruses by their official names," stated First Responder, an anti-racism platform, in a tweet. "After the Ebola and MERS outbreaks triggered discrimination and racism, the WHO changed their official naming mechanism to not include place of origin. Call it 'COVID-19' to stop the hate."

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Omicron variant in Netherlands earlier than thought

Edited by: Louisa Schaefer

Courtesy: DW

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