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A virus by any other name would still suck

But should this novel coronavirus have a novel name?

By Ricky Browne

The pandemic that is currently sweeping the globe is the most severe disease to affect humanity since the Spanish Flu of the early 20th century.

As such, you’d think that the novel coronavirus would be worthy of having  a distinct and novel name.


The World Health Organization says that the term covid-19 should be the proper name for the disease. That is a rather generic term that means,  CO for corona, VI for virus and D for disease, with 19 referring to the year it was discovered – 2019.

The WHO logo

The place where it was discovered – which is what gave the Spanish Flu its name – is avoided. In fact the WHO has bent itself into pretzels  to try and disassociate Wuhan and China with the disease – a country that has given significant monetary support to the WHO.


Proof of the WHO’s reluctance to anger China can be seen by looking at the official WHO statistics, which speak to just about every country and independent region on Earth, and how it has handled the virus. But there is one glaring omission. Taiwan, formally known as the Republic of China is not mentioned.

A view of Taipei, capital of Taiwan. Photo: Vernon Raineil Cenzon

China views Taiwan as a renegade province, which will one day return to the People’s Republic of China. China has been on a diplomatic mission over the last several decades to reduce to zero the number of countries that still recognise Taiwan over China.

There are today only a few holdouts, tiny countries in the Caribbean and elsewhere, which benefit from Taiwan aid, and have not yet sold out to the greater aid being offered by China. A total of 15 states recognise Taiwan as the Republic of China (and therefore have no official relations with Beijing). They include: Belize, Guatemala, Haiti, the Holy See, Honduras, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Nicaragua, Palau, Paraguay, St Lucia, St Kitts and Nevis, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Swaziland (now known as Eswatini) and Tuvalu.

That may be all well and good, but the fact is that Taiwan has handled this virus better than any other place on Earth. So it may have valuable lessons for humanity. But the WHO would rather we don’t consider those lessons at all, and instead look to other successful countries such as New Zealand.

According to Worldometer, Taiwan has had 819 cases of this particular coronavirus with only seven deaths. That’s out of a population of about 24 million people.


But the WHO has not spoken about Taiwan at all.  Instead it has pointed to New Zealand as being the best country in its response.

The busy streets of Aukland, New Zealand Photo: Dan Freeman

WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has singled out New Zealand for its management of the virus. But according to WHO statistics New Zealand had 1,830 cases of the disease with 25 deaths. The country has a population of almost five million people – a fraction the population of Taiwan, and with a much lower population density.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of the WHO

Some other names have been considered for the virus. US President Donald Trump has consistently referred to it as the China virus. That name may have received approval from many of his supporters, but others have said such a term is racist.


Interestingly, other recent dangerous viruses have taken their names from the places that they were discovered. Two examples are the Ebola virus and MERS.

The first example is the Ebola virus which first discovered in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then called Zaire) back in 1976. The first victim was a teacher in a village called Yambuku, which was near to the Ebola River, which is a tributary of the Congo River.

Few tourists are visiting the cascades on the Ebola River

Nobody asked if calling it Ebola would offend the people who lived near to the Ebola River. Nor did they think of limiting the offence by naming it after a smaller region – the village of Yambuku. So it wasn’t called CARS-78 (Central African Respiratory Syndrome-1978). I know that Ebola is not a respiratory syndrome disease — it is actually a hemorrhagic fever virus — but you get the point.

The second example is MERS, which was first discovered in the Middle East after which it is named. The virus was first discovered in 2012 in Saudi Arabia, but was believed to have originated earlier that year in Jordan. Nobody thought how offensive the 246 million people in the Middle East region would feel about having the disease named after them. So MERS it was.


A more recent suggestion is to call the current virus SARS-CoV-2, meaning the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome-related Coronavirus 2. This was the name chosen by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses and has also be approved by the official medical journal The Lancet.

But the name has sparked some controversy, as some people think the name could be confused with the original SARS, which although related, is a different type of coronavirus.

Actually, many people thought that SARS had stood for South Asian Respiratory Syndrome, probably helped by the fact that SAR is also the acronym for Special Administrative Regions used by China to describe Hong Kong and Macau. The SARS virus actually originated in China in 2002 according to Britain’s NHS.

US President Donald Trump refers to it as the China virus

So if SARS-CoV-2, doesn’t work, maybe being a little more specific with where the virus originated could be an answer. Perhaps it could be called the Wuhan virus. But China would be as pleased about that as it would be about Donald Trump’s suggestion.

Another idea could be to call it the Bat Pangolin Wet Market virus -BaPaWeMa for short.

So as it stands, the world media is calling this thing the coronavirus – which could mean any multitude of coronavirus diseases, or COVID-19 — even though the virus didn’t really start to hit the world at large until 2020, and even though that name doesn’t eliminate other similar viruses that may have originated in the year 2019.

The whole world knows what is meant by Covid-19. But the refusal to give it a distinct name seems to more of a function of not insulting China, the place where this virus originated, than of finding a more descriptive name.


Meanwhile, in Wuhan, the virus is now under control. So much so that the city held big celebrations to bring in the New Year on January 1, even though China traditionally celebrates Chinese New Year instead, which this year will be on February 12.

Thousands celebrate New Year’s 2021 in Wuhan, China

New Year’s celebrations were in fact scaled down in much of China, including Beijing, where the usual light show was cancelled. But not so in Wuhan, which used the opportunity to thrust a giant middle finger into the air, as thousands of people gathered in the city centre and threw caution and concern into the wind along with the thousands of balloons they released.



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