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The Politicization of Naming Diseases

Mar 27, 2023
Jude Odeh
Core Spirit member since Mar 27, 2023
Reading time 6 min.

There is nothing that transpires on earth today that doesn’t have a link or connection to politics. Every decision world leaders make is geared towards satisfying a certain political need. Hence, politics and politicking has become very crucial to the affairs of humans.
Indeed, to reach a favorable agreement with your landlord, boss, business partner, etc, you need to display a certain level of politicking. That is why it plays a strong role in the manner regulatory agencies make their decisions. When new diseases are discovered, several steps are taken to identify and classify the disease in order to make recognizing them easier and to avoid confusing them with diseases that might have similar symptoms.
In the last couple of years however, it is noticeable that scientists and those saddled with identifying and naming these diseases do not apply the same yardstick to all parties. For instance, when a virus was discovered in a Congo town of Ebola, the virus was sequenced and named Ebola virus. However, a virus was discovered in Wuhan, China and instead of following the same pattern, it was named Covid-19.
That is a clear example of the politicization of naming diseases this article aims to identify. From Europe to South Asia, political rivalries have been the driving force for how diseases are named. When Syphilis was discovered, the Russians referred to it as the “Polish disease”, Italians called it the “French disease”, and Polish on their part labeled it the “German disease”. The aim of all of this is to attach stigma and embarrassment to those countries they have classified as their political rivals by associating them to such diseases.
An Anecdote on Such Politicking
When Syphilis made its way into Europe from what was known as the “New World”, it brought death along with it and this death was pronounced throughout the continent. The number of casualties was so much, syphilis was called the Great Pox.
When the mode of transmission of this venereal disease was discovered to be via sexual intercourse, people redoubled their efforts in order to disassociate themselves from it. According to a note published in 1495 by Nicolo Squillaci, the Italian doctor said “Nothing could be more serious than this curse, this barbarian poison”.
You would notice the use of the word “barbarian” from Squillaci’s words. The use of the word is a deliberate attempt to disassociate Italy from the spread of syphilis. To further disconnect themselves from this sexually-transmitted disease, it was renamed the “French disease”. The British and Germans also adopted this appellation. However, this naturally didn’t go down well with the Frenchs, as they renamed the “Neapolitan disease” in the bid to take that embarrassment away from them. By calling it that, the Frenchs meant that the disease came from Italian sailors. The Danish, Portuguese, and most of North Africa, syphilis was referred to as the “Spanish disease”.
This old-long rivalry is much more pronounced as you journey further down East. In that part of the world, it was observed that the Turks referred to the disease as the “Christian disease”, certain Muslims called it the “Hindu disease”. Although there was a consensus that the disease itself originated from the European continent.
The inference to be drawn from how syphilis was branded and rebranded is that many countries do not want to associate itself with virulent or deadly diseases. The stigma and shame it brings is a motivating factor for many of these countries to want to have t nothing to do with diseases.
The Spanish Flu Situation
The Spanish flu pandemic occurred in 1918, claiming about 50 million people. The pandemic has forever been linked to Spain and the name has also stuck on the minds of people. One explanation for this was that Spain was one of the few European powers to have maintained their neutrality during World War I. Hence, the Spanish press wasn’t in any form of wartime censorship and it could report it freely without fear of impacting the morales of its soldiers on the battlefield negatively.
It was in May 1918 that the first reporting of the outbreak was disclosed in a Spanish paper. The Spanish flu gained more popularity when King Alfonso XIII contracted the disease. Since other European countries read about the disease only in the Spanish media, it was dubbed the “Spanish flu”, a name that didn’t sit well with the Spaniards. They did all they could to rename it the “French flu” but the attempt failed.
The Covid-19 Situation
In our modern world, another of the syphilis situation played out when a highly contagious virus was discovered in Wuhan, China in the latter part of 2019. Hence, there is a reason why the virus was called Covid-19, a title which is far less provocative and less evocative than the plagues that were discovered in the past.
This decision is said to be an attempt by the World Health Organization to avoid “references to a specific geographical location, animal species or group of people”, when it comes to naming diseases. The health body also pointed out that following the old trend in naming diseases could evoke stigma and discrimination. A typical example is the Swine flu incident where there was fear-mongering about pork products. Another is the stigma against people of Middle Eastern extract when the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome was discovered.
When it came to the Covid-19 situation, health officials faced similar political dilemma. Few weeks after its discovery, several informal names were coined for it including, “Wuhan flu”, “Wuhan coronavirus”, etc. However, on the 11th of February 2020, the WHO announced in a press conference that the disease will now be formally called Covid-19 (Coronavirus 2019).
Owing to about 7,111 languages in the world today, it is difficult to get the citizens of the world to reach a consensus. There is also fear that if the wrong words becomes more appealing to people, it could breed stigma and discrimination against the region where those diseases were discovered.
On why it wasn’t appropriate to name the Covid-19 Wuhan virus, Jens Kuhn, a specialist at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), who specializes in highly virulent viruses said “There are already 17 or so “Wuhan” viruses in existence, which range from cricket viruses to mosquito viruses”. Kuhn also said it any name that would connect these to a human outbreak may make things more complicated and also make research on these viruses harder.
In Conclusion
Although a name has been ascribed to the coronavirus, the extent of the damage it has caused maybe irreparable. After linking the disease to Wuhan explicitly via thousands of headlines across the world, it is difficult to be reputed in the public for anything other than the “Wuhan virus”.
Many advocates of the new naming system has said that regardless of whatever name a virus is called, it doesn’t determine how much or less it spreads. The objective should be ensuring that the disease doesn’t spread further. This advocacy is only coming when the countries where these diseases were discovered wields a lot of political or economic powers.
The same cannot be said of countries in Africa, South America, and some lesser Asian countries. The attempt to explain the politics involved in how the Covid-19 got is name is lame and not convincing.
A new variant of the Covid-19 was first reported by South African scientists some weeks back. Although South Africa wasn’t the first place where the Omicron variant as it is known was discovered, it was the first place to sequence and report it. Attempts are being made in various world media to rebrand the variant as an African variant.
Several countries of the world have imposed series of travel bans on African countries that have reported on or two of such variants but no travel bans were issued to European countries where hundreds of cases of Omicron variant of the Covid-19 was reported. That’s the politics we’re referring to.
So as long as you wield no political or economic power in the grand scheme of things, you will be treated as inferior and preferential treatment will always be given to countries like China, the United States, the United Kingdom, etc. A clear example is the blatant attempt to rebrand Omicron variant of the Covid-19 as an “African variant” even though several cases were discovered in Europe before it was reported in South Africa.

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