On March 16, 2020, a 34-year-old woman was attacked while walking down the street in New York City. In the U.K., a nurse was assaulted while on her way to an overtime shift on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic. Similar attacks have been reported across the U.S.
What do all these incidents have in common?
The aggressors targeted their victims because they appeared to be of east Asian descent, and in the aggressor's minds, were to blame for the latest pandemic. This is the very real danger of calling COVID-19 a "Chinese virus."
It started in China, so why is it a big deal if someone calls it the Chinese Virus?
I've been asked this question multiple times over the past month and it's never in an antagonistic way, but rather a sincere question from well-meaning people who are a bit befuddled.
The answer is: Because words have power.
We've seen this kind of fear-driven prejudicial behavior before. In 2009, during the H1N1 outbreak, Egypt slaughtered all the pigs in the country and in the U.S., pork prices plummeted as consumers looked elsewhere. Why? Everyone was worried about "Swine Flu." The problem was, pigs had nothing to do with the spread of the disease – human activity did.
This is exactly why the World Health Organization created a set of new best practices for naming diseases.
The new standards say that we should avoid naming diseases after:
Medically Accurate Naming
According to the WHO, if the medical community lacks robust information about the disease, generic descriptive terms should be used, as they are the least likely to change (e.g., respiratory, hepatitis, enteritis).
If the information about the disease is sufficiently robust, then more specific terms can be used. For example, age group (juvenile), time course (acute), severity (mild), and so on.
If the pathogen is known, it should be part of the name, as should the year it was first detected. That's how COVID-19 got its name: COronaVIrus Disease 2019.
By focusing on the year of detection (2019) and the cause (coronavirus), COVID-19 avoids placing blame on any people, place, or animal.
Key Point: Avoid Accidentally Promoting Racism
When you stick to the WHO's naming recommendations, you actually help foster the cooperation that allows us to focus on combating the disease instead of fostering fear and scapegoating. By using the medical name for a disease, such as COVID-19, you minimize the risk of adding insult to injury.
To learn more about this, visit the WHO:
VP Operations | Lead Editor