At a World Health Organization (WHO) media briefing last month, Director-General Tedros Adhanom announced that WHO had a new name for the disease now making headlines worldwide.
In his remarks, Adhanom said, “Under agreed guidelines between WHO, the World Organisation for Animal Health, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, we had to find a name that did not refer to a geographical location, an animal, an individual or group of people, and which is also pronounceable and related to the disease.
Having a name matters to prevent the use of other names that can be inaccurate or stigmatizing. It also gives us a standard format to use for any future coronavirus outbreaks.”
A month later, some conservative politicians and officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, are abandoning the recommended terminology, and are instead using “Wuhan virus,” a term that proliferated on news sites and in political commentary, mostly before the virus received an official name.
A State Department official said on March 9 that Pompeo was using this language to counter Chinese Communist Party misinformation. This echoes public remarks made by Pompeo, when he rejected a suggestion made last week by Zhao Lijian, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, that the coronavirus may not have originated in China, and that it was “highly irresponsible” to connect the two.
Columnist Rich Lowry wrote a March 9 opinion piece in the New York Post titled, “It’s not racist to call it ‘the Wuhan virus.’”
“[China’s] government tried to suppress warnings about the new coronavirus and looked the other way, giving it the room to become a national and then a global crisis. [China] deserves to be connected to the virus it did more than its share to let loose on the world — no matter what its foreign ministry or the sensitivity police say.”
But it is racist, Rich Lowry.
“Be just as stupid to call it the Milan Virus,” as Representative Ted Lieu, Democrat of California, eloquently tweeted.
Frank Snowden, the Andrew Downey Orrick professor emeritus of history and history of medicine at Yale University, told the New York Times, “People that are still calling it [the Wuhan virus] are using it in a very loaded, ethnic way, and I believe it’s mainly associated with people on the political right.” He called it “aggressive” and “politically charged.”
This is not a political issue. This is a global epidemic with lives at stake.
The name matters and, as the WHO intended, it should be clinical and non-descript.
Let’s just stop the rumors and prejudice, put aside ignorance and bias, and work together to fight with science, reason, and cooperation.