WHO deftly uses a little Greek to end COVID ‘name-calling’

The main reason behind the change in nomenclature is that calling variants – or viruses – by the places where they are detected can be stigmatising and discriminatory

Last month the Modi government wrote to all social media companies asking them to take down any content that referred to an “Indian variant”. Photo: Only for representational use

The ‘Indian variant’ of the coronavirus (B.1.617.2), classified as a variant of global concern in May, will now be named after the Greek alphabet Delta. The other three variants of concern, known as the UK/Kent (B.1.1.7), South Africa (B.1.351), Brazil (P.1), will be given the letters Alpha, Beta, and Gamma.

The World Health Organization (WHO) chose the new naming system after months of deliberations with experts considering a range of other possibilities such as Greek gods, The Guardian quoted bacteriologist Mark Pallen, who was involved in the talks, as saying.

The existing scientific names of the variants, involving numbers, Roman letters and full stops, which convey important scientific information, will continue to be used in research.

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Why the change matters

The main reason behind the change in nomenclature is that calling variants – or viruses – by the places where they are detected can be stigmatising and discriminatory.

Former US President Donald Trump was routinely criticised for referring to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus”. Going back in history, Ebola was first identified in 1976, in two simultaneous outbreaks: one in Nzara, a town in South Sudan, and the other in Yambuku, a village near the Ebola River in the Congo. Such associations can be damaging as well as inaccurate – the ‘Spanish flu’ of 1918 did not originate in Spain.

Last month the Modi government wrote to all social media companies asking them to take down any content that referred to an “Indian variant.”

The Centre said media reports using the term were without any basis, saying the WHO had classified the variant as just B.1.617.

“This is completely FALSE. There is no such variant of COVID-19 scientifically cited as such by the World Health Organization. WHO has not associated the term ‘Indian Variant’ with the B.1.617 variant of the coronavirus in any of its reports,” the letter said.

Anti-Asian hate crimes

Hate crimes against Asian-Americans have gone up since the start of the pandemic. In March six women of Asian descent were killed when a man went on a shooting rampage at three spas in the Atlanta area.

Several political parties and groups in the West, including in the US, Britain, Italy and Germany, have also latched on to the COVID-19 crisis to “advance anti-immigrant, white supremacist, ultra-nationalist, anti-semitic and xenophobic conspiracy theories that demonise refugees, foreigners, prominent individuals, and political leaders,” the Human Rights Watch said in May 2020.

Governments should take urgent steps to prevent racist and xenophobic violence and discrimination linked to the pandemic while prosecuting racial attacks against Asians and people of Asian descent, HRW said.

“The pandemic continues to unleash a tsunami of hate and xenophobia, scapegoating and scare-mongering,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on May 8, 2020. He urged governments to “act now to strengthen the immunity of our societies against the virus of hate.”

Explaining its decision to adopt Greek alphabets, the WHO said: “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.

“To avoid this and to simplify public communications, [the] WHO encourages national authorities, media outlets and others to adopt these new labels.”

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