Decoding the rationale: Is calling COVID-19, the Chinese Virus correct?

Dr Aishwarya Rohatgi & Dr Amrita Priyadarshini, IIPH, New Delhi

Image courtesy: Wiki commons

Corona surely has no competition in entering the Oxford dictionary’s word of the year for 2020. The reaction to any of the previous pandemics has never been as colossal as COVID 19. Undoubtedly, technological advancements and globalization take the credit for this reaction. At​ one end of the spectrum the world is working cheek by jowl to find a solution to the pandemic, au contraire, with overdose of information on the internet and social media fanaticism, we are losing rationality and communion. This blame game is resulting in a cauldron of conflicting politics and apartheid.

COVID-19 has been pejoratively tagged as the Chinese virus because of its origin in Wuhan, China and allegedly the country has been falsely churning out stories and manipulating data with respect to COVID-19. This​ issue has become a fiercely debated topic in all forms of media, quite recently backed and perpetuated by Mr Donald Trump (US president) in his public addresses.

Historic examples of misnomers in naming a pandemic

Let’s start with the flu pandemic of 1918 which killed almost 20 percent of people who were contracted. It was widespread during World War-1 and came to be known as Spanish flu or Spanish lady. However, Spanish flu in reality did not start in Spain but originated from Kansas, United States and caused major destruction in other European countries, still this misnomer stuck with Spain for years. In reality Spain was the only country to have reported with candor on the pandemic and hence the media started to associate Spain with the flu.

Another example is of Swine flu, which has an intriguing history as well. During the 2009 outbreak that is claimed to have started from a pig farm in Mexico sent waves of fear about the safety of pigs for consumption, trading and rearing as well. Simultaneously, numerous cases of influenza like illness appeared in the USA and it was concluded that both the outbreaks were related. An​ immediate impact was that there was a sharp drop in domestic and export demand for pork following widespread media coverage of the H1N1 virus outbreak under the name 'Swine Flu', even though pork posed no risk of spreading the disease. This led to widespread economic losses and unemployment among the pig farmers, packaging, trucking industries and pig markets around the world. In popular lexis, it is called swine flu referring to its origin of transmission from pigs, however, scientists and experts at WHO have discouraged people all over the world from using the term swine and instead encouraged everyone to call it by its official name, i.e. influenza A (H1N1 virus). This step was indeed essential due to reasons stated but brought little difference in the media proceedings. Aftermath of this widespread use of misleading name of the disease was that Egypt ordered mass culling of pigs. The United Nations criticized the mass cull of up to 400,000 pigs as "a real mistake" because the new strain of virus had not been found in pigs. No compensation was paid to the pig owners who faced devastating losses. Thus we can clearly see that misnaming a disease accompanied by a string of misinformation led to an infodemic which further gave impetus to faulty political decisions.

Does COVID mean China Originated Virus?

A large segment of people is swayed by the arguments about China’s political ploys amidst this pandemic, heading the world to the pinnacle of discrimination, the biggest nemesis of public health, thus quashing its back bone.

This form of stigmatization and prejudice against countries more specifically ethnic groups isn’t a new occurrence. From time immemorial outbreaks, epidemics and pandemics have been the perfect recipe to incite xenophobia and eventually deinstitutionalize the social and economic constructs of any society in the world. Racism, discrimination, sexism, visceral fear are also a consequence of misguided disease naming policies and the language of the disease. It has had drastic implications worldwide.

All the above cases indicate that the world has already faced drastic consequences of misnomers and misguided language policies with respect to the outbreak of novel diseases and needed to rethink its ways. To avoid such unintended consequences on trade, travel, tourism or animal welfare, and avoid causing offence to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups WHO in consultation and collaboration with the World​ Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), and the Food​ and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)​, ​International Classification of Diseases (ICD)​, formulated best practices for the naming of new human diseases in 2015.

This was followed in case of Coronavirus pandemic when an intermediate name Novel coronavirus was coined in the initial phase to avoid misinformation. Later WHO released the official name COVID-19 (Corona Virus Disease) caused by SARS Co V-2 virus in February, 2020.

Dr K Srinath Reddy, President Public Health Foundation Of India in one of his interviews very aptly said: ‘Pandemic’ and ‘panic’ share five letters. The word pandemic triggers a visceral fear among people and we could see serious disruption of normal life across the world. The xenophobia, which has already manifested, could become more virulent than the virus itself and the global economy could teeter. This could even impede the capacity for organised, rational response to the epidemic. It is anti-science and the effects can be seen in India as well. As cases of racism against Indian Chinese and people from north east India surfaced in the media.

The outbreak of a biological virus corresponds to the outbreak of informational viruses that entail rumours. These are highly contagious as well, spreading through tabloid newspapers, glaring television reports, and a surfeit of online channels, mutating, multiplying and altering to new contexts.

Here, Shakespeare may ask what’s in a name?

The problem here is that the name is just not a name. It's more about what we perceive and rationalise. Therefore, an overarching practice for naming diseases is necessary to avoid the human tendency of scapegoat politics.

“Having a name prevents the use of other names that can be inaccurate or stigmatizing. This is a time for solidarity, this is a time for facts, this is a time to move forward together, to fight this virus together. There is no blame in this. All we need now is to identify the things we need to do to move forward quickly, with speed and to avoid any indication of ethnic or other associations with this virus.” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus recently said on Coronavirus pandemic.

COVID has shown us that science and rationality should be the pillars to fight this crisis. Also, solidarity, unity, cooperation, knowledge, transparency, well informed decisions are important tools in curbing the impact of the pandemic. The first and foremost step for this is to have nomenclature of the disease which is more scientific and is sensitive to various identities.




About the authors:

Dr. Aishwarya Rohatgi and Dr. Amrita Priyadarshini are public health students from the Indian Institute of Public Health, New Delhi. The views expressed in the article are personal opinions of the authors.

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