Why Are Names Important?

Why Are Names Important?

Breaking a habit is a difficult process. For centuries people have been naming diseases after places. Doing so, however, can lead to violence against people from those places. This is why in 2015 the World Health Organization issued new guidelines for naming diseases. These guidelines focus on using the name of the pathogen that causes the disease, the symptoms of the disease, and the year it was discovered. During the COVID-19 pandemic the use of names tying the virus to China, often used in a derogatory manner, led to an increase in hate speech and violence directed towards Asian Americans.

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This Chinese restaurant was vandalized with “COVID-19” and “Coronavirus” graffiti. 

“[T]here’s never been anything where they have so many names. I could give you 19 or 20 names for that. It’s got all different names. Wuhan. Wuhan was catching on. Coronavirus. Kung flu. COVID-19. I said what’s the 19… I could give you many, many names. Some people call it the Chinese flu, the China flu.”

–President Trump, August 23, 2020

Image courtesy of Anthony Zurita, northjersey.com

1918-1919: H1N1 (“Spanish flu”), first documented in the US, Germany, France, and the UK

1957-1958: H2N2 (“Asian flu”), first documented in China

1968: H3N2 (“Hong Kong flu”), first documented in Hong Kong

2003: SARS-CoV (SARS), first documented in China

2009: H1N2 (“Swine flu”), first documented in Mexico

2012: MERS-CoV (MERS), first documented in Saudi Arabia

2020: COVID-19 (“Kung flu,” “China flu,” “Indian variant,” “Brazilian variant,” “UK variant,” etc.), first documented in China

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Disease names catch on quickly. Even Peanuts characters used the name “Asian Flu” in 1958. Children often repeat the words of adults, not realizing that these names can be hurtful. 

Image courtesy of MinnPost

“This may seem like a trivial issue to some, but disease names really do matter to the people who are directly affected. We’ve seen certain disease names provoke a backlash against members of particular religious or ethnic communities, create unjustified barriers to travel, commerce and trade, and trigger needless slaughtering of food animals. This can have serious consequences for peoples’ lives and livelihoods.”

—Dr Keiji Fukuda, Assistant Director-General for Health Security, World Health Organization

Watch this short film from We Are Not A Virus to learn more about how the naming of a disease can affect people.

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A timeline shows the density of global online media coverage using controversial terms (in orange) and global online media coverage of COVID-19-related racial attacks (in blue). For the most part, the rises and dips correspond.

Study by Hanjia Lyu, Long Chen, Yu Wang, and Jiebo Luo

“One feature of the usual script for plague: the disease invariably comes from somewhere else. The names for syphilis, when it began its epidemic sweep through Europe in the last decade of the fifteenth century, are an exemplary illustration of the need to make a dreaded disease foreign:

It was the ‘French pox’ to the English, morbicus Germanicus to the Parisians, the Naples sickness to the Florentines, the Chinese disease to the Japanese. But what may seem like a joke about the inevitability of chauvinism reveals a more important truth: that there is a link between imagining disease and imagining foreignness.”

–Susan Sontag, AIDS and Its Metaphors

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This 1918 political cartoon depicts the “Spanish Flu.” Note the skeleton dressed as a matador, even though the first documented cases occurred in the United States, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. 

Image courtesy the Indiana Star