From Aarskog-Scott syndrome to Zumbusch psoriasis, generations of clinicians and medical researchers have earned fame, fortune and a kind of immortality through the honor of having the rare disease or disorder they have identified named after them. But when an entire region or country finds itself associated with a deadly infectious disease, the result is more of a curse than an honor.
Over the years there have been plenty of examples, including the “Spanish flu,” responsible for the 1918 pandemic that claimed more lives than the First World War (and which didn’t originate in Spain), the Ebola virus, named after the river of the same name in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where it was first identified in 1976, and Middle East respiratory syndrome, identified in more than 20 countries since 2012 but linked first to camel-to-human transmission in Qatar and Saudi Arabia in 2012.
Back in May 2015, the World Health Organization decided enough was enough, and called on scientists, national authorities and the media “to follow best practices in naming new human infectious diseases to minimize unnecessary negative effects on nations, economies and people.”
The use of names “such as Middle East respiratory syndrome,” said Dr Keiji Fukuda, assistant director general for health security at the WHO, “has had unintended negative impacts by stigmatizing certain communities or economic sectors.”
Disease names, he added, “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 people’s lives and livelihoods.”
Unfortunately, the initiative wasn’t backdated, which means that the Middle East will forever be associated with the coronavirus that caused Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS-CoV.
Then, at the beginning of last year, along came SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus behind the Covid-19 pandemic and the cause to date of more than 3.7 million deaths around the world. For a while, following then-US president Donald Trump’s unfortunate lead, even CNN was calling it “the Chinese disease,” but in February 2020 the WHO officially named the disease Covid-19, a name that stuck.
Unfortunately, the virus then started to mutate and suddenly it was open season in the name game.
Starting in December 2020 a series of variants began to emerge, with each one named for the nation in which it first surfaced – the UK, South Africa, Brazil and India all found themselves so named and shamed.
At the end of May, with the announcement that henceforth all current and future variants of the coronavirus would be known by letters of the Greek alphabet, applied in the order in which they emerged, the WHO took steps to end the practice.
If it works – and, worryingly, many media outlets around the world have yet to adopt the new naming system – the UK strain, the first to have cropped up, back in December, will be known as the Alpha variant.
That’s easy enough to remember. But with few in the modern world familiar with all 24 letters of the Greek alphabet, it remains to be seen whether Beta (the South Africa variant), Gamma (Brazil), Delta and Kappa (both India), Epsilon and Iota (the US) and Theta (the Philippines) will catch on. And quite what will happen naming-wise should the number of SARS-CoV-2 variants top 24 remains to be seen.
Regardless, the WHO’s well-intentioned initiative is to be applauded.
We live in a time when opinions can be formed, and individuals and entire races maligned and libeled, at the drop of a tweet or a Facebook posting.
Labeling Covid-19 “the Chinese disease,” or naming a variant “Indian,” serves little purpose other than to hand a gift to the ignorant and the ill-intentioned – those who are either unable or unwilling to understand what is going on, or who are quick to seize on any “evidence” that can be manipulated to reinforce their prejudices.
In May last year, United Nations chief António Guterres spoke of the “tsunami of hate and xenophobia, scapegoating and scare-mongering” that had been unleashed by the pandemic. “Anti-foreigner sentiment,” he added, “has surged online and in the streets. Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories have spread, and Covid-19-related anti-Muslim attacks have occurred. Migrants and refugees have been vilified as a source of the virus.”
Attacks linked to variant naming have taken place. In May this year, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong took to social media to condemn a racist attack on a woman of Indian descent who was kicked and abused for not wearing a mask – permitted in Singapore while exercising, which the woman was at the time.
Public anxiety over the pandemic, wrote Lee, “does not justify racist attitudes and actions, much less physically abusing and assaulting someone because she belongs to a particular race.”
Covid-19, as Guterres stressed, does not care who we are, where we live, what we believe or about any other distinction. The whole world is in this fight together, and we will win it not by turning on one another, but by fighting side by side, united by our humanity and our common cause rather than divided by petty prejudices.
Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK.