The World Health Organization (WHO) announced Tuesday that it had chosen an official name for the coronavirus disease. COVID-19, the designated name for the disease that was first identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan last year, stands for Coronavirus Disease 2019.
“Having a name matters to prevent the use of other names that can be inaccurate or stigmatizing,” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told journalists in Geneva. “It also gives us a standard format to use for any future coronavirus outbreaks.”
According to the 2015 international guidelines, the designated name should not refer to any geographical location, an animal, and an individual or group of people while still being pronounceable and related to 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 really stigmatizing,” Wendy Parmet, a law professor at Northeastern University and public health expert, told TIME. “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.”
Many people have referred to the novel coronavirus as the “Wuhan coronavirus” or “Chinese coronavirus,” which might have triggered the rise of xenophobic incidents against Chinese and other Asian nationalities.
Racist incidences also caused dramatic impacts on Chinese restaurants all over the US where there are now 13 confirmed COVID-19 cases. In Canada where there are 7 confirmed cases, Chinese restaurant owners in Toronto reported business drops of more than 30 percent since the outbreak. In Australia, Sydney’s Chinatown turned into a ghost town. Asians in the UK also reported “shocking” levels of racism following the country’s first reported cases of the virus. The UK declared Monday the coronavirus a serious and imminent threat after its cases doubled to eight.
The WHO cited the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), the Spanish Flu, the Swine Flu, and the Chagas disease as samples of disease names that can stigmatize. MERS was first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012 but has also been identified in 27 different countries. The 1918 influenza pandemic was widely known as the Spanish Flu in the US although it did not originate in Spain. The term “swine flu” led to a drop in the pork market, prompting the WHO in 2009 to replace its name with Influenza A (H1N1).
Parmet added that the new name COVID-19 is appropriate. It’s easy to pronounce and has only two syllables. She said, “You want something that’s easy and that people are going to keep using otherwise they’re going to substitute it with more problematic slang.”
Apart from the disease, the virus itself has been named the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) by the Coronavirus Study Group of the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses, the committee responsible for the official classification of viruses.
The virus is deadlier than the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) that killed 774 people worldwide from November 2002 to July 2003. The current coronavirus death toll surpassed 1,100 with only two deaths outside China: one in the Philippines and another in Hong Kong. As of Tuesday, the global confirmed cases reached 43,101 with 42,708 identified in mainland China.