On Monday, the World Health Organisation announced that the COVID-19 variants will officially receive "easy-to-pronounce," "non-stigmatising" labels. A group of virologists, scientists, and nomenclature experts are calling on people to refer to the various strains by letters of the Greek alphabet. The variants will keep their official scientific names, but just as coronavirus has become shorthand for COVID-19, strains like the B.1.1.7 and B.135 variants will now be called the Alpha and Beta variants.
The new labels are convenient for everyone who, understandably, might not be able to differentiate between the B.1.525 and B.1.526 strains without a trip to the NHS's website. But that feeds into another important reason people have been advocating for new names: Instead of referring to variants by their scientific names, many people have begun describing them by referencing their countries of origin. And, according to experts, this can lead to the same kind of COVID-based stigma and discrimination we've seen worldwide since the virus was first detected in late 2019. It might be factual to describe the P.1 (or Gamma) strain as the variant first found in Brazil — and it might seem harmless. But identifying deadly diseases with countries can have a dangerous impact, both recently and historically.
"While they have their advantages, these scientific names can be difficult to say and recall and are prone to misreporting. As a result, people often resort to calling variants by the places where they are detected, which is stigmatising and discriminatory," the WHO wrote in a statement. "To avoid this and to simplify public communications, WHO encourages national authorities, media outlets and others to adopt these new labels."
Since the onset of the pandemic, many countries have seen a devastating uptick in reported hate crimes against Asians, a surge researchers say is a direct result of former Twitter influencer Donald Trump's inflammatory language. Trump frequently referred to the coronavirus "the Chinese Virus" and "the Kung Flu", even though — under his leadership — the U.S. rapidly reached a death rate over 100 times greater than China's.
According to a March 2021 study from the American Journal of Public Health, hate crimes and anti-Asian hashtags started increasing a week after Trump first used the words "Chinese Virus" in a tweet on March 16, 2020. "We often see that online conversations that contain messages of hate don't stay online," Dr. John Brownstein, one of the study's authors, told ABC News. "Oftentimes, the conversations that take place on social media results in real world consequences."
The WHO has repeatedly warned against associating COVID-19 with China or the city of Wuhan, and wrote that the coronavirus name was "deliberately chosen to avoid stigmatisation." In a January 26 statement, President Joe Biden acknowledged that the federal government "played a role in furthering these xenophobic sentiments" against Asian Americans, and a civil rights group even sued Trump for encouraging racist violence with discriminatory language.
But Trump wasn't the first American to blame a disease on a country or community. As University of California-Riverside political science professor Kim Yi Dionne told TIME, we have a history of politicising disease and using it as an excuse for racism, xenophobia, and anti-immigration legislation.
"Chinese immigrants to California were treated as medical scapegoats for years, and their exclusion based on disease threat was actually codified in the 1882 Exclusion Act," said Dionne. As TIME reported, the Exclusion Act was the first federal law to distinguish "illegal" immigrants, and it was a result of stereotypes that Chinese immigrants were more likely to carry diseases that were actually just as common in other Asian and European countries — like cholera, which was sometimes even called "Asiatic cholera."
There's also the example of the Spanish Flu, which did not actually originate in Spain. Spain was, however, the first country to report the illness, just as the U.K., Brazil, and South Africa were the first to report several variants. COVID-19 is a global pandemic. Its spread can be blamed on certain leaders, sure, but it isn’t the fault of any country.
Maria Van Kerkhove, a WHO epidemiologist interviewed by the Guardian, put it best: "No country should be stigmatized for detecting and reporting variants."