It is widely acknowledged that the coronavirus first originated in the Wuhan region of China.
Starting December 2019 it was initially called the ‘Wuhan virus’, the ‘China virus’, and the ‘Chinese virus’. It was not till February 2020 that the WHO gave it the formal nomenclature of COVID-19.
This is how it has come to be known worldwide. Here is a look at whether renaming it now makes sense.
It is a political question
Sometime after the WHO officially gave the COVID-19 nomenclature, former US President Trump started using the term “Chinese virus” in his official statements.
Diseases like Ebola, Spanish flu, and others have been named after their geographic origins. However Trump’s use of the term attracted criticism because of the tenor. Critics found the use of the term ‘racist’ and ‘xenophobic’.
Many claimed that it would foster animosity in the US against the Chinese and Asian-American communities. Others called the use of the term “an excuse for the government’s slow response to the outbreak”.
Their contributions to the American economy are no less important. The repercussions of offending vast migrant communities with the use of such biased terms can be dire. The fact that Mr. Trump is no longer in office is proof.
It is interesting to compare the naming mechanism of diseases with conventions for naming cyclones, typhoons, and hurricanes.
In October 2020 the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) explained that the rules for naming tropical cyclones are decided at regional levels.
In the Atlantic and Southern Hemisphere (Indian Ocean and South Pacific) cyclones are named after alphabetically ordered names of male and female humans.
In 2000 countries in the Northern Indian Ocean adopted a new method for naming cyclones. Now gender-neutral names ordered alphabetically and country-wise are in use.
The name lists are proposed by the National Metrological and Hydrological Services (NMHS) of WMO member-countries. These must be approved at the annual/biannual gatherings of that region’s meteorological bodies.
In short, naming destructive storms is an apolitical and collaborative process.
The WHO naming convention
Among its many responsibilities the WHO is also in charge of naming diseases. Naming viruses however, is the duty of the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV).
When naming a disease or the organism that causes it, the global health authority partners with other global bodies. These include the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations.
In 2015 the WHO claimed to have identified the best practices for the naming of new human diseases. Its aim was to minimize unnecessary negative impact on trade, travel, tourism, and animal welfare.
It also aimed to avoid causing offence to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups. The organization stipulated that diseases must not be named after geographic locations (cities, countries, regions, and continents), people’s names, cultural, population, industry, or occupational references, and terms that induce fear.
Though the WHO calls for the avoidance of terms like Ebola, MERS, Spanish flu, and others, they remain in active use all over the world.
COVID-19 or Chinese virus
There are some who agree with Trump in this regard. Others allude to historic precedents such as the Spanish flu, as support for the term “Chinese virus.”
However, the Spanish flu actually did not originate in Spain, but in the US state of Kansas. It then spread rapidly with advancing armies as World War 1 raged.
Spain was one of the only countries at the time without comprehensive wartime censorship.
The name Spanish flu stuck because the only information available about the deadly disease was coming from Spain.
The Chinese (and other Asians) find the term “Chinese virus” offensive, just as residents of the Ebola region of the Congo and Middle Easterners don’t like to have diseases named after their regions.
The bigger issue
Over 100 million people worldwide have been infected. The death toll has exceeded 2 million. Coronavirus has cost the global economy GBP 7.1 trillion.
To squabble over the nomenclature of a highly contagious and deadly virus is rather pointless, especially since the medical community has given it a formal name – COVID-19.
All stakeholders would utilize their energies much better by concentrating on treatment, vaccination, and preventive initiatives.
About the author:
Hemant G is a contributing writer at Sparkwebs LLC, a Digital and Content Marketing Agency. When he’s not writing, he loves to travel, scuba dive, and watch documentaries.