Naming diseases

“If it was racist to call the virus the ‘Chinese virus’ or ‘Wuhan virus,’ why do you insist on referring to the ‘U.K. variant?’” —Chuck in Wisconsin

For whatever reason, we — media, health experts, politicians, humans in general — have historically referred to novel viruses by their unique new “thing.” But not only is that nomenclature not always accurate, it can also do serious harm.

Take the 1918 influenza pandemic as an example. It did not originate in Spain; the first known case was discovered in the United States. But newspapers covered the effects in Spain first, and so it was called the “Spanish flu.” With the benefit of hindsight, we can correct the false naming convention, but we should also be wary of falling into the same misconceptions in the future.

From Jan. 1 to Feb. 11, 2020, The Washington Post published 31 stories that used an inaccurate naming convention for the coronavirus, out of a total of 175. During that time, there was little information about the virus and even less guidance for media. On Feb. 11, the World Health Organization announced an official name, and the media widely started referring to it as the “novel coronavirus” and “covid-19.”

We’re in kind of a similar situation now with the variants. The media, including The Post, quickly adopted location-based naming for the variants — e.g. the “U.K. variant” for the variant that was first discovered in the United Kingdom. (We should add that the reason it was found there first is probably because the U.K. is on the forefront of genetic sequencing, and has far outpaced other countries in the sheer number of sequences it runs).

But The Post has since changed how it refers to these variants: On Jan. 27, the Post’s stylebook (internal guidelines) was updated to prefer “the variant first identified in the U.K./South Africa/etc.”

You might still find the location-based names in some places, like in headlines where it isn’t possible to fit both the news and “the variant first identified in South Africa.” We are hoping the World Health Organization soon comes up with guidance that all media can follow.

Naming novel things, especially in technical stories, is always a challenge. We have to weigh what readers are familiar with alongside what’s technically accurate. We try to find the right balance. There’s little point using nomenclature that readers don’t recognize, but we also understand the weight of our words and the influence they have? ( Washington Post 8 Feb 2021)

My comment: When the “British variant” hit the news I half worried that, owing to my British accent, a brick might find its way through our front window.  After all, a prominent person calls covid 19 the “Chinese virus”,  and apparently people who look Asian have been picked on.  Small minded, isn’t it?

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