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Opinion: Naming diseases – What’s with the double standard?

On the back of the continuing spread of the COVID-19 globally, there seems to be an awakening of another debilitating illness along with it that desperately needed fueling to rear its ugly head, which this outbreak has duly obliged. Death tolls keep rising, infections are increasing, fear and panic looms large and pervades every human home that has knowledge of the global pandemic. 

China has turned a corner, which is laudable and as a person who chose not leave the country even though the deadly executioner knocked on every door including mine, I feel grateful that I’ve made it so far. It was an unfamiliarly crippling period, one I’ve never experienced in my entire existence on the planet until January 2020 rolled around.

It was at the time only here in China, devastatingly disrupting every good plan laid for the year and taking innocent lives out and away from their dear ones. As China kept on hurting, some in the outside world could not cast a sympathetic gaze on this innocent country but found it a perfect opportunity to lash out and add insult to injury caused by the disease. From long-respected news outlets to ‘wannabe’ ones, many out there called China all sorts of names, which was heartbreaking to read or watch. 

Maybe our biggest mistake during the period was ‘gorging’ on every item of news we could find to stay updated on the situation. Most of the things we read were demoralising and disappointing to the core. The fact that there seemed to be barely any news on vaccines to ease the situation nor the commanding understanding of the genome of the virus was disappointing, but not as disappointing as the xenophobia and the racist attacks meted out to anyone that looked Asian or, permit me to say, ‘Chinese’ from the outside world. There were rising cases of attacks (verbal or physical) or abuse of various sorts in the so-called civilised countries. 

The worst of it all has been those calling this merciless rampaging disease ‘Chinese Virus’ (interchangeably called the ‘Wuhan Virus’ and even ‘Kong Flu’), a worthless branding that has continued to be perpetuated by the President of the United States of America, even after a week of China declaring the outbreak to have been adequately brought under control. More voices (mainly from China and many more outsiders including citizens from the US) have called for this preposterous calling of this disease ‘China Virus’ to cease, to the extent that the outcry prompted the WHO to move quickly to re-name the disease officially as COVID-19. 

Honestly, until I heard and read about the rage of mainland Chinese people and some foreigners intensely calling for the perpetrators of the name ‘Chinese Virus’ to stop, I didn’t think it was harmful or offensive as it has obviously turned out to be. It felt normal because I’d never heard anyone declare the names  ‘African Swine Flu’ or Ebola (named after the Ebola River in the Democratic Republic of the Congo) as wrong. Everyone could say it, anywhere anytime with any sort of mannerism to it without anyone raising an eyebrow. They (African Swine Flu, Ebola and co) have been names that have comfortably lived among us, irrespective of whichever part of the world they were mentioned. This was why I felt that there’s nothing wrong (as much) with ‘Chinese Virus’. But I realised that I was wrong. I applaud the efforts of the World Health Organization (WHO) in warning against use of the phrase ‘Chinese Virus’.

Sometimes the dominant feeling I get is that this only happened because it was associated with China. Of course, it is because it is China. With the current power and influence this great country wields, when they speak, you must pay attention and take action; because you cannot have close to a third of the world’s population against you, you cannot fall on the wrong side of a country with such an enormous economic impact and now such great allies. 

Yet my call here is, if WHO could quickly move to correct an error that effectively got over 80% of blind propagators of the name ‘Chinese Virus’ to backtrack on that trend, can’t they do the same with unappetising and dishonouring names like ‘African swine flu’ or ‘Ebola’ (I learnt Ebola is named after the region it was thought to have originated from) – Is the reason they see no need to change these names because they refer to the African continent?

I’ve read countless articles from registered news outlets with titles like “African swine fever killing millions of pigs in global crisis”, “Hubei province hit with African swine fever outbreak that’s killing wild boars”, just to include a few. I will attach most of the articles I have to this write up. Most of the reporters are Chinese and other foreign nationals alike, with some reports as recent as 5th March.

A news report from CGTN on March 20 wrote against the American President’s tweet on the disease which he profiles as the ‘Chinese Virus’. In the report, they were quick to write that ‘WHO, the World Organization for Animal Health and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in 2015 published a guideline “WHO best practices for the naming of new human infectious diseases”. It aimed at minimising the unnecessary negative impacts of disease names on trade, travel, tourism or animal welfare, and avoiding causing offence to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups. 

I keep asking myself, ‘what’s going on here?’ ‘What’s the catch?’. So you’re so quick to rise up against something that is dishonouring your country but freely use terms that do the same to others (not just a single country, but an entire continent)? This irony is just too much to swallow. As an African, I’m offended. And this is why I’ll join many others who are willing to do something about this, just this (for the meantime). You cannot ask people to stop calling COVID-19 ‘Chinese Virus’ but turn around and use the terms ‘African swine whatever’. And to the WHO, you cannot move to swiftly act on properly naming the new coronavirus COVID-19 but cast a blind eye on African swine flu. 

The White House, in a bid to reply to the backlash against the president’s tweet, listed many diseases that still, unfortunately, have names with countries and regions attached. Names like Spanish flu, West Nile virus, Zika, Crimean Congo hemorrhagic fever, Japanese encephalitis and many others.

From today, I urge you WHO, to go through all your archives, and change every plague, disease etc that have been callously named after a region, country or a continent for that matter. I and a strong army of people who feel offended by this abhorring attitude call for ‘CHANGES ACROSS-BOARD’. You’ve demonstrated competence and speed in that regard especially in the case of China; which makes us suspect that this isn’t beyond your capabilities. I hereby call on all Chinese and other foreign nationals, most especially reporters for news agencies to from this day on desist from calling any disease whatever it is called with any country or region or continent’s name attached. 

For most of us who have seriously decided to rise up against this hypocritical attitude, we will not stop until justice is served for all, including Africa. Note that ‘one good turn, deserves another’, and that ‘what goes around comes around’; just as those countries that mocked and disrespected China in the tough times of the COVID-19 outbreak are now having their fair share of it and are seeking China’s help to get out of this globally shared plight. Karma is a respecter of no one, no matter who you ‘are at the moment’.

Let us all demand Changes across the board’.

Peace ✌🏼 and healing to our world. All this will soon pass. Thanks.

What do you think?

Written by Alfee M

Currently conducting research as a PhD student in China

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