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World Health Organization Is So Afraid of Offending People That It's Changing the Names of COVID Variants

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Is preventing hurt feelings more important than communicating public health information and stopping the spread of COVID-19?

If you ask the World Health Organization, the answer is a firm yes.

The Washington Post reported Tuesday that the “British,” “South African” and “Indian” variants are no more, as the WHO issued a statement indicating that it will be making some changes.

“To assist with public discussions of variants, WHO convened a group of scientists from the WHO Virus Evolution Working Group, the WHO COVID-19 reference laboratory network, representatives from GISAID, Nextstrain, Pango and additional experts in virological, microbial nomenclature and communication from several countries and agencies to consider easy-to-pronounce and non-stigmatising labels for VOI and VOC,” the WHO statement read.

“At the present time, this expert group convened by WHO has recommended using labeled using letters of the Greek Alphabet, i.e., Alpha, Beta, Gamma, which will be easier and more practical to discussed by non-scientific audiences.”

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Did anyone ask Greece if it approved of this change? Isn’t this cultural appropriation?

All kidding aside, the argument that using place names for diseases stigmatizes people is a real stretch. Does using place names only become offensive when COVID-19 is involved?

After all, I don’t hear widespread complaints about West Nile virus, Spanish flu, Middle East respiratory syndrome, Marburg virus, Lyme disease, St. Louis encephalitis and many, many more.

Don’t get me wrong, a disease outbreak in a particular place can have very real social consequences for the people living there. This can come in the form of travelers from Wuhan being bolted into an apartment or COVID-inspired discrimination against people of Asian descent in the United States.

Would you be offended if your hometown were used to identify a disease?

But an effective response to those phenomena isn’t what’s happening here.

While changing names because a few people got offended seems like another example of modern social media pontificating, the WHO turned it into an art form long before the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

“This may seem like a trivial issue to some, but disease names really do matter to the people who are directly affected,” Keiji Fukuda, a top WHO official at the time, said in 2015.

“We’ve seen certain disease names provoke a backlash against members of particular religious or ethnic communities, create unjustified barriers to travel, commerce and trade, and trigger needless slaughtering of food animals. This can have serious consequences for peoples’ lives and livelihoods.”

I would be more open to changing how I refer to COVID-19 variants if someone could prove specific, widespread instances of people being affected by the naming. As an empiricist, I am always open to changing my perspective based on observation and sensory experience.

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But, according to The Post, these latest changes seem to reflect recent complaints by the Indian government and British citizens more than anything else.

I doubt such complaints were common in the U.K. and India before the new variants ravaged their respective nations. Were a destructive new variant to emerge in my home state of Texas, I would have no objection to calling it the “Texas variant.” Using place names is just easier.

That ease is being noted even by some experts wary of using place names. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told CNN that “it would have been good to have thought about this nomenclature early.”

“I think it’s just a lot for people to think about this far down the line,” he added.

In the end, I am tired of political correctness infecting every aspect of our lives like the virulent pandemic it is. The public should be able to access essential public health information in a way that is easily digestible without a filter.

The WHO needs to give it a rest. Its pandemic-era shenanigans have been tolerated for far too long. We must be wary when the next novel disease comes knocking.

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Garion Frankel is the senior policy advisor for the Texas Federation of College Republicans. He enjoys and has published articles and academic works on public policy, philosophy and political theory.
Garion Frankel is the senior policy advisor for the Texas Federation of College Republicans. He enjoys and has published articles and academic works on public policy, philosophy and political theory.
Languages Spoken
English, some Spanish