What’s in a Name? The Problem with Naming Diseases.


Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.

The current pandemic goes by many names. Often known as Coronavirus or simply Corona after the virus family that it belongs to, the scientific name is COVID-19. However, by some people, and in America especially, the term ‘China virus’ or ‘Wuhan virus’ has become common parlance. Here are some of the reasons why naming a global pandemic after a single place is a bad idea and why we should instead stick to the scientific name.

When a virus such as this has as many names as it does, resorting to calling it by its place of origin is not only lazy but ignorant. President Trump, known for intolerant and inflammatory rhetoric, has repeatedly and deliberately referred to COVID-19 as the ‘China virus‘.

This has both political and social consequences. Not only does this coincide with a series of incidents that are raising tensions between China and America, but it also scapegoats the people of China for living at the original source of the pandemic. It personifies the threat. This is particularly dangerous as Asian communities have seen a rise in xenophobic attacks and discrimination.By calling it the ‘China virus’, it has singled out people to be deemed responsible. However, this is nothing new.

The World Health Organisation released guidelines for the naming of new diseases in 2015 , specifically to avoid naming people, places or animals. These recognised that ‘the use of names such as ‘swine flu’ and ‘Middle East Respiratory Syndrome’ has had unintended negative impacts by stigmatizing certain communities or economic sectors.’

COVID-19 was chosen as the official name of the pandemic to comply with these guidelines. It is an abbreviation of Corona (CO) Virus (VI) Disease (D) 2019 (-19). There are many different types of coronaviruses which have been linked to previous pandemics, such as SARS in 2002 and MERS in 2012. Coronaviruses get their name from their appearance – the pathogen appears to have a spiky crown (‘corona’ in Latin) when examined under a microscope.

The current pandemic has prompted many comparisons with the 1918 pandemic, commonly referred to as the Spanish flu, which is yet another example of poor naming. It was called Spanish flu because the disease was under-reported in Europe except for in Spanish newspapers, as Spain was not part of the First World War, and thus not subject to censorship. This led to the assumption that the disease originated in Spain, simply because they reported on it first. The Spanish believed that the virus had originated in France, and so they called it the ‘French virus’. In the post-war world, this hindered relations and created distrust and dissension at a time when Europe was riven by the devastation of both war and disease. Throwing out blame is also likely to have an unhelpful impact on relations when the world is in recovery post-COVID.

The influenza virus behind it, H1N1 virus, has a viral legacy which can be linked to Swine flu, believed to be a fourth-generation descendant of the 1918 virus. Instead of calling them Spanish flu and Swine flu, it would be more helpful to use their scientific names to understand their virological progression throughout history. In the same way, it is better to understand COVID-19 as a progression of previous coronaviruses.

International cooperation and communication are needed now more than ever, and all actions to blame anyone for the origin of the virus are unhelpful. There may be a long history of poorly named diseases, but calling the current pandemic the ‘China virus‘ is purposefully ignorant and unnecessary.


History student and Sub-Editor for Politics and Features

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