John Larrysson's Column: Why call it COVID-19?

Why not call it the Wuhan Virus or the Chinese Coronavirus; why COVID-19? Many American politicians and media people have called it the Wuhan Virus or the Chinese Coronavirus. 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines of 20151 say disease names must avoid "geographic locations, people's names, species of animal or food, cultural, population, industry or occupational references, and terms that incite undue fear." So the virus is called 2019-nCoV (or SARS-CoV-2)2. The disease it causes is COVID-19. The term novel coronavirus just means a new virus from the Coronaviridae family.

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Why do they have such guidelines? What is wrong with the name Spanish Flu 3 for the 1918 pandemic? Well, you could ask the people of Spain who call it the French Flu. One might argue such a name is simply telling people where that influenza strain came from. Unfortunately, we usually do not know where a disease started until well after the pandemic is over and researchers start sifting through the records.

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The Spanish Flu did not come from Spain. The earliest known cases were from Kansas in America.4 America, France and England all had the Spanish Flu before Spain. However their newspapers were silent about it because of World War I. Spain was not involved in that war and its newspapers were uncensored; as a result, cases were reported from Spain earlier than from anywhere else. If we blame a disease on the place it seems to come from and name it after those people, then people are unlikely to report new diseases to the world. How much worse would COVID-19 be if China had kept silent, instead of quickly reporting it to the WHO?

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The risk is not merely being impolite or hurting people's feelings; it can also prevent needless persecution or discrimination. In the 14th century European Christians blamed Jews for the Black Death, which was the pandemic of the day.5 Many thousands of Jewish people were murdered because of such accusations. During the San Francisco Bubonic Plague of 1900-1904, the Americans blamed Chinese immigrants and uselessly quarantined Chinatown.

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Some diseases are named after people. Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease's name is not malicious, it was named after the two doctors who first independently described it. A name that gives credit to a doctor is not a problem. However should Lou Gehrig be remembered as a baseball player or for being sick with Lou Gehrig's disease. While the Avian Influenza (or Bird Flu) may have come from birds, panicking about birds does not help.6 Do not start going out shooting wild birds.

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We do not know that COVID-19 came from Wuhan; we only know that there were suddenly many cases there. According to the WHO, "Currently, the source of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus (CoV) causing COVID-19 is unknown.It might even have been brought from Italy by a Chinese tourist.8

We will call this disease COVID-19, because it is harmful to us to use a name that assigns blame.

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1. WHO issues best practices for naming new human infectious diseases

2. A distinct name is needed for the new coronavirus

3. It is also better to call it influenza, not flu, to avoid confusion with the common cold. (The John Larrysson Column: The 3 most dangerous words in English

4. The Influenza Pandemic of 1918

5. The Black Death killed millions and was caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. Jews were less likely to get the disease because of cultural reasons; they washed more than the other Europeans.

6. Bird-flu panic grips China

7. Q&A on coronaviruses (COVID-19)

8. Coronavirus: 'strange pneumonia' seen in Lombardy in November, leading Italian doctor says

by John Larrysson

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A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for over two decades.


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