As Coronavirus evolves, new strains are being named after where they were first found, such as referring to B.1.617 as the ‘Indian variant‘.
Naming variants after places might seem harmless but it’s actually harmful, creating stigma that can lead to racism.
The damage caused by using geographic locations as labels has been demonstrated by former US president Donald Trump, who referred to the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” and “Kung Flu” — widely regarded as racist language.
Although SARS-CoV-2 probably originated in China, Trump’s argument that “Chinese” is merely linguistic shorthand for “it comes from China” ignores an important point: words matter.
People should be careful with how they use language because certain words can have dire consequences. “Chinese virus” isn’t an innocuous phrase and evidence suggests that it caused a dramatic rise in racial slurs and physical violence against Asian-Americans, inspiring the hashtag ‘Stop Asian Hate’.
The problem with naming any germ or disease after a location is that it attaches a stigma to people from that place.
Worse, that stigmatization is then extended — through racist stereotypes — to anyone who ‘looks like’ they come from the same location, which is probably how the phrase “Chinese virus” led to hate crimes against those who appear ‘Asian’.
If a scary new strain of Coronavirus emerged in China, calling it a “Chinese variant” would be no different from saying a “Chinese virus”. Just as it’s not acceptable to name the SARS-CoV-2 species after a country, it’s equally unacceptable to use a country’s name to label a variant.
So how should people refer to Covid-19 variants?
One alternative to geographic labels is scientific terms. Many scientists use a system of naming (or ‘nomenclature’) based on evolution, by comparing genetic sequences to construct a family tree then labelling each branch or ‘lineage’. B.1.1.7 is the lineage/variant first isolated in the UK, for example.
Using an alternative naming system is necessary not only to prevent racism, it could be crucial to stopping the pandemic, as a country that becomes stigmatized for being the ‘source’ of a dangerous new variant might then be discouraged from revealing the emergence of other variants.
As Oliver Pybus, an evolutionary biologist who co-developed the lineage-based naming system, told the journal Nature, “The last thing we want to do is dissuade any particular place from reporting they’ve got a new concerning variant — in fact, we want to do the opposite.”
Fear of being stigmatized has already prompted politicians to put pressure on scientists to avoid mentioning the nation where a variant is first isolated. At the request of South Africa’s President and health minister, bioinformatics researcher Tulio de Oliveira originally labelled B.1.351 — popularly known as the ‘South African variant‘ — as N501Y.V2, after its most notable mutation.
In an article published in Science, de Oliveira and colleagues pointed out another issue with using locations for labels: a new variant that’s initially detected in a particular country didn’t necessarily emerge there.
As the article explains, “It is not known whether patient zero of each variant was a resident of or visitor to that country, and all variants have been identified well beyond the first countries in which they were identified.” Names can therefore wrongly assign blame to the place where a variant was first found.
Naming Coronavirus variants hasn’t seemed like a major problem because, so far, most names have been associated with a relatively large area, an entire country.
As a consequence, the blame for ‘allowing’ a new variant to emerge hasn’t been directed at any particular group of people, but deflected toward a government and its response to Covid-19 through measures like lockdowns and travel bans.
India is currently experiencing a huge surge in Covid cases. While that might partly be due to a new strain with two mutations (a so-called ‘double mutant‘) that seems to help it spread more easily, the wave of infection is also being blamed on human behavior.
Critics can focus the blame when cases spike in a small area, such as a city. In such instances, people start to speculate on the cause of that surge, jumping to conclusions about the behavior of the area’s residents.
One well-known example of blaming the residents occurred in November 2020. When Swale in Kent became the worst-hit area in the UK, a local official implied that the rise in cases was caused by “wilful disregard of the rules” on wearing face masks and social distancing. We now know, however, that the surge in infections was due to the emergence of B.1.1.7.
Blame is most likely to lead to racism due to the ethnic composition of a population. If a region consists mainly of white people, such as Kent in South-East England (91% white-British ethnicity), race won’t be a factor. Unconscious stereotypes — caused by associating a location with race — only become clear if an area includes a large proportion of people of color.
That association between location and race could then be influenced by an area’s size. Whereas countries are often large enough to contain an ethnically-diverse population, smaller areas — like cities — can consist of an ethnic ‘minority’ that actually makes up the vast majority of residents.
Now imagine that a Covid variant emerged somewhere with a predominantly black population, such as Detroit, which has been called a “Coronavirus hotspot” and where 80% of residents describe their race as ‘black or African-American. If a new strain were labelled the ‘Detroit variant’, it would condemned as racist.
If that hypothetical scenario sounds far-fetched, bear in mind that Covid-19 variants are already being named after small geographic areas: B.1.1.7 is also known as the ‘Kent variant’, for example, while the B.1.526 strain has been called a ‘New York variant‘ (interestingly, not ‘American variant’).
While it’s possible that the media might nickname a variant like a movie sequel — like ‘UK variant 2’ — such names are unlikely to stick because they’re not very catchy.
The US seems more sensitive to racism against people of African ancestry (and arguably with good reason, given the history of slavery and police brutality), which might explain why outrage highlighted by the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement has seemed greater than the anger prompted by racism against Asian-Americans.
Sadly, it might take a virus to become associated with African-Americans for the public to understand why naming Covid variants after places can lead to racism.
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