Covid-based stigma and racism in naming strains

By John Christy Johnson, Peter Anto Johnson, Austin Albert Mardon, Antarctic Institute of Canada & Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, University of Alberta

Covid-based stigma and discrimination have been seen worldwide since the start of the pandemic. Racialized groups are at a particularly vulnerable position, as the names and language we associate with coronavirus and its strains can inadvertently propagate racism, xenophobia, and systemic violence.

Perhaps best popularized by the hate crimes against those of Chinese descent, these incidents appear to be the repercussions of associating the disease with race and social identity. Former President Donald Trump has frequently referred to the deadly disease as the “Chinese virus” and the “Kung Flu.” While there were arguably public health reasons to be mindful of foreign visitors during the early stages of the pandemic, the use of inflammatory language charged with racial blame was not tactful to say the least.

Race-associated language used when naming diseases, especially of the infectious sort, is nothing novel. For instance, the naming of the Spanish influenza in 1890 and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012 both had the unintended consequences for stigmatizing certain communities. Most often, these names are not issued by the scientific community but rather popularized by common usage in social media and the Internet.

Unfortunately, stigmatization and discrimination have also seeped its way into language, policy, and even mere association with race. Within the population of India, for instance, there have also been cases of prejudice and othering based on geography, class, and religion. For example, the residents of Northeast India have been the target of cultural mockery even prior to the pandemic. With mongoloid facial features, similar to features of Chinese individuals, several cases of discrimination have been reported against Northeasterners including being spat at, being called “corona,” asked to vacate lodges, beaten, suspended from employment, and denied healthcare. In doing so, it only aggravated the virus in these regions making them even more susceptible to catching the virus.

There have been growing concerns over the naming of mutant strains of SARS-CoV-2 based on geographic origin i.e. “Indian variant,” “Brazilian variant,” “African variant,” etc. While most of these strains have gene sequence labels like B.1.617.2, these labels are not used in everyday exchanges and do not blend well with the public vernacular. The World Health Organization has been recently working to change the nomenclature by the introduction of the Greek Alphabet to denote certain strains. However, these new changes appear to be too little too late especially when these popularized terms of the more dangerous geographic variants are associated with fearmongering and race-blaming. That being said, if there is widespread adoption and enforcement by social institutions of these recommended names, it can create less political strife and encourage race-neutral dialogue in civil discourse.

As these viruses continue to mutate to evade detection and increase transmission, more strains are likely to appear and grow prominence in the future. During these especially disconcerting times, we must act in good faith when building language around these new variants to avoid it from being used for derogation and guilt induction.

About the authors: John Christy Johnson is a research program officer at the Antarctic Institute of Canada and an MD/MSc biomedical engineering candidate at the University of Alberta. Peter Anto Johnson, MSc is a research program officer at the Antarctic Institute of Canada and medical student at the University of Alberta. Austin A. Mardon, CM, PhD, FRSC is an adjunct professor in the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Alberta, director of the Antarctic Institute of Canada, an Order of Canada member, and Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and Royal Society of Canada.

Suggested further readings

Parr, H. (1997), Naming names: brief thoughts on disability and geography. Area

Hinton, M, Ono-George, M. (2020) Teaching a history of “race” and anti-racist action in an academic classroom. Area.

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