On Tuesday (February 11), the World Health Organization (WHO) announced the official name for the new coronavirus disease: COVID-19 — making sure not to reference Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the virus originated. COVID-19 stands for Corona Virus Disease 19.
The development came after the death toll from the virus passed 1,000. Tens of thousands of people have already been infected from various parts of the world.
WHO Officially Names New Coronavirus Disease COVID-19
According to Director-General of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, having a name matters to prevent the use of other names that can be inaccurate or stigmatizing, as shared in a report by Time.
Ghebreyesus further noted: “It also gives us a standard format to use for any future coronavirus outbreaks.”
We now have a name for the disease caused by the novel coronavirus: COVID-19.
— Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (@DrTedros) February 11, 2020
In 2015, the WHO has set guidelines that ensure the name does not refer to a geographical location, an animal, an individual or a group of people, while still being pronounceable and related to the disease.
Commenting on this, Wendy Parmet, a law professor at Northeastern University and public health expert, said: “If the new name had included a reference to Wuhan it would put ‘tremendous stigmatization on the people of Wuhan who are the victims‘ of the disease.”
“People tend to think of the disease as belonging to, as being a characteristic of some group of people associated with the place name, which can be stigmatizing,” Parmet added.
She pointed out: “To be thought of as a hole of disease is not going to be productive. It encourages the next city not to come forward, not to report a disease if your city is labeled as the disease.”
Following the outbreak of the new coronavirus, there have been reports of xenophobic incidents and attitudes, particularly towards people of Asian descent.
In line with this, experts have noted though that there is a “long history” of diseases being named in ways that include particular groups of people or places or animals.
Interestingly, back in the 1500s, in France, Syphilis was called the Italian disease and in Italy, it was called the French disease. Another such version was the 1918 influenza pandemic, which was widely called the Spanish Flu in the U.S., even though it did not originate in Spain. In 2009, the WHO stopped using the term “swine flu” and replaced it with Influenza A (H1N1), following a drop in the pork market. Ebola was named after a river near where the outbreak first originated.
Owing to these, the WHO now notes the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, the Spanish Flu, Swine Flu, and the Chagas disease as examples of names that should be avoided when looking to name new diseases.
Commenting on this, Arnold Monto, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, says it’s important to be sensitive to different cultures when naming a disease.
In the case of the new coronavirus, Parmet explained that it’s ideal to have a name that’s easy to pronounce like COVID-19, because it’s short, easy to say, and has only two syllables.