Reader view: Names matter — COVID-19 vs. ‘Chinese Virus’

In wake of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States and around the world, an alarming phenomenon is the sharp rise of gun ownership among Asian-Americans who are panicking and feel insecure and targeted, partly due to COVID-19 being called “the Chinese Virus.” 

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. But what if they do? 

When we talk about diseases, we often use the common names given by people outside of the scientific community. Scientific names like “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2”, the name of the tiny virus that has dominated all of our lives lately, don’t exactly roll off of the tongue. Once a name “sticks” which happens a lot faster in these days of social media, it is hard to change. 

While the name given to a disease may seem like a trivial issue, it matters to the people who are affected. Whether intentional or unintentional, names can and do have a negative impact. In many cases, the common name is not even scientifically accurate. 

For example, people used to think that Malaria, which has afflicted people for thousands of years, was caused by “bad air,” hence the name. It was also called “Roman fever” and later called ague or marsh fever due to its association with swamps and marshland. It wasn’t until 1880 that a doctor observed parasites inside the red blood cells of infected people and other scientists within that decade finding that mosquitoes transmitted this parasite to people. 

The scale of the outbreak we are currently experiencing has drawn many parallels to the Spanish flu of 1918. While it was first reported in Spain, there is no consensus as to where it actually started. More recent research indicates that it is unlikely that this flu outbreak actually started in Spain, with genetic and historical evidence that it existed in France, the United States, and China before 1918. While World War 1 was raging at the same time as the outbreak, censors minimized reports of influenza in France, Germany, the UK, and the US so as not to further decrease morale, while reporting on the epidemic in Spain, which was neutral in the war. Thus, the nickname “Spanish flu” stuck. 

Another instance where the common name is inaccurate is the Ebola virus. As recently as 2014, there was an outbreak in West Africa. However, it first appeared in 1976, but not named until later. The international team of scientists investigating the 1976 outbreak were concerned that naming it after the village where it was first reported ran the risk of stigmatizing the village of Yambuku, which had happened with the Lassa virus that surfaced in that town in 1969. So after a long day and bourbon, they settled on naming it after a river near the town where it started, using a small map pinned on the wall. Except the Ebola river is not even the closest river to the town. 

Fast-forward to 2015. Naming conventions were issued by the World Health Organization, recognizing that the naming of diseases after places or people can increase xenophobic reactions. Here are the guidelines for the naming of new human infectious diseases: 

In summary, a disease name should: 

• Consist of generic descriptive terms, based on the symptoms that the disease causes (e.g. respiratory disease). 

• Include specific descriptive terms when robust information is available on how the disease manifests, who it affects, its severity or seasonality (e.g. progressive, juvenile, severe, winter). 

• Include the name of the pathogen that causes the disease (if known, e.g. coronavirus, influenza, salmonella). 

A disease name should not: 

• Include geographic locations (e.g. Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, Spanish Flu, Rift Valley fever) 

• Include people’s names (e.g. Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, Chagas disease), species of animal or food (e.g. swine flue, bird flu, monkey pox), cultural, population, industry or occupational references (e.g. Legionnaires). 

• Include terms that incite undue fear (e.g. unknown, fatal, epidemic). 

Therefore the name COVID-19 comes from: 

  • • Co and Vi come from Coronavirus 
  • • D indicates Disease 
  • • 19 stands for 2019, the year the first cases were seen 

While it has been a common practice historically and traditionally to coin a new disease with a name of a person, group of people, or place, it is no longer something that should continue if we truly believe we are a more educated and developed society. This is also similar to the changes our society has been gradually making about the names we use to call groups of people and places in this country. 

As of this 2015 study, at least 1,441 federally recognized places in the United States still included racial slurs in their official name, despite the policy of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names that does not accept a name for federal usage that is determined by the board to be derogatory to a particular racial or ethnic group, gender or religious group. “Squaw” is the most-used racial slur in American place names (828 locations), with 11 variations on “Squaw Tit/Squaw Teat.” At least 30 places had variation on “Chinaman”, 558 places with derogatory language directed towards African Americans, not including 6 places named ‘darkey’ and 45 that use the word ‘spook.’ In 1962, the Board replaced “N—–” with “Negro” in the names of at least 174 places, and for dozens places in 1974, where “Jap” was replaced by “Japanese.” 

Just because a name or a naming convention has been tradition, or “how it’s always been” does not mean it is right that we keep doing so. 


— By Will Chen, Edmonds business owner and 
Lisa Chen, high school science teacher 

  1. Names DO matter, and the gleeful way that some want to use offensive, derogatory, divisive and inaccurate names for covid-19 is despicable. This is beautifully and respectfully written. Thank you Will and Lisa!

  2. Will and Lisa: What a wonderful article and perspective. Well researched and most helpful. I join both of you in pledging to help eliminate stereotypes and racial-labeling. Many thanks.

  3. Mmmm. Maybe we should call it the Trump virus then. Your know, since it has gone from a Democrat hoax, to “only 15 cases”, to “it will be over in April when it warms up”, to “I knew it was a serious epidemic all along and our response has been exceptional.” Seems there has been a little miss information handed out on the home front too; so by the above criteria, I think it would be fair to call it the “Trump virus” — choosing my words carefully.

    There is only one reason to call it the “Chinese virus.” That’s to associate it with the Chinese people so they are the scapegoats. The only reason for me to call it the “Trump” virus is to associate it with the idea that Trump caused it, which would be patently stupid and untrue on my part. Untruth just begets more untruth and more scapegoating.

    1. Your comment was in the wrong place. The commentary you left that comment on was about racism in America, directed towards Americans. Not what the Chinese government is doing. Feel free to write a commentary piece or a letter.

  4. Some of my comment above referred to Matt’s comment which has apparently been removed from the thread, so my apologies if some of mine doesn’t make much sense. The point is this thing should be called what it is, Covid-19, and leave the ethnic and political references out of it. These references are designed to suggest blame and are totally unfair whichever way they are applied and who they are applied against.

    1. I don’t understand why Matt’s comment was removed. I read it and it was clearly in response to Will and Lisa’s letter, and very clearly in support of calling covid-19 the “China/Chinese” virus.

      1. All – these are trying times and I am doing my best to be sensitive to those who are being impacted by the virus on so many levels. As a result I am trying to keep people on topic as much as I can and offering always to post commentaries as letters to the editor or opinion pieces if they are not addressing the topic at hand. And in the final analysis – yes it is my judgment to decide whether something is on topic. Somebody has to make that call and as the owner and moderator of this site it’s me.

        1. Makes complete sense. Thank you for your sensitivity, and for doing such a wonderful job keeping us informed.

  5. Being one of the world’s worst digressers (apparently not a word); I totally understand where you are coming from Teresa. You have saved me from myself on several occasions and I appreciate you for that. Stay safe and well – we so totally need you and what you do for the town.

  6. I totally agree with Teresa’s difficult position. There have been some of my pithy comments that never appeared and she made the right call in not having them appear!

    Kudos Teresa!

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