Despite repeated advice from the medical community that naming diseases after their place of origin has no benefit and actually causes harm, President Donald Trump and some conservative media figures continue to use the phrase “Chinese Virus” to describe the new coronavirus.
In 2015, the World Health Organisation issued new guidelines for naming new infectious diseases in humans. The guidelines are meant to “minimise unnecessary negative effects on nations, economies and people.”
The best practice for naming diseases, WHO states, should consist of generic terms that describe the disease’s symptoms, or, if the pathogen that causes the disease is known, it should be part of the disease name.
Nonetheless, Trump – spurred on by Fox News hosts including Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, who have been attacking China’s role in the outbreak for weeks – adopted the harmful terminology in a tweet.
On Wednesday, following a huge backlash, the White House tweeted a defence:
But historians, the medical community and advocacy organisations have since found that these names have adverse effects, and in some cases, are also inaccurate.
The Spanish flu, for instance, did not originate in Spain. Major countries involved in World War I sought to avoid panic and suppressed reports of the outbreak. However, Spain, which remained neutral and was not subject to wartime censorship, reported the pandemic early, creating a false impression that the nation bore the brunt of the outbreak.
Medical community experts have abandoned other naming conventions for similar reasons. WHO says disease names should avoid geographic locations, people’s names, species of animal or food, and other references that could incite fear or place blame.
John Yang, the president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, explained to HuffPost that rhetoric like the president’s needlessly stigmatises entire communities. Asian Americans, for example, are already facing greater violence and hate linked to the Covid-19 outbreak.
Citing data recorded from AAAJ’s reporting tool for hate incidents, Yang noted a “definite significant increase” in incidents “directly attributable to Covid-19.”
While naming a virus based on the location of its first reported case or original epicentre might have been the norm in the past, Yang said, the practice now goes against clear guidelines designed to minimise harm.
“We all know that language evolves,” Yang said. “What may have been an appropriate term in the past doesn’t make it appropriate now.”
As an example, Yang cited old naming conventions for hurricanes, which received exclusively female names until the practice was dropped in 1978 when the meteorological community caved to pressure.
“We all recognised at a certain point that that was sexist and silly, so we don’t do it now,” Yang said.
Asked about Trump’s use of the term “Chinese Virus,” Dr. Mike Ryan, the executive director of WHO’s emergency program, said at a press conference on Wednesday that it was something everyone should avoid.
“It’s been very clear since the beginning that the viruses know no borders, and they don’t care about your ethnicity or the colour of your skin,” he said.
He noted that the 2009 H1N1 influenza virus pandemic (referred to as “swine flu” early on) originated in North America.
“We didn’t call it the North American flu, so it’s very important that we have the same approach when it comes to other viruses,” Ryan said.