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Language is a powerful tool in our fight against COVID-19

By Sejla Rizvic

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to adopt a whole new glossary of terms with which we may not have been familiar. References to N95 masks, intubation, and R0 (the number used to describe the estimated rate of disease transmission) have all entered the public discourse, and some terms may still be unclear — such as the precise difference between “self-isolation” and “quarantine.” This new vocabulary can lead to uncertainty and misinformation during a time when clarity of language is most needed. 

To further confuse things, the virus itself has been referred to by several different names, including simply “coronavirus” (the name for the broad category of viruses it belongs to), “COVID-19” (the name of the disease caused by the virus), and “SARS-CoV-2” (the name of the current strain of the virus). 

Experts warn that when confusion about language is combined with the anxiety of living through a global pandemic, it can create an environment where misinformation flourishes. This can be dangerous to public health for many reasons, including the potential for discrimination and racism.

We see this in the use of terms like “Wuhan virus” or “Chinese virus,” which have been picked up by right-wing media outlets and, until quite recently, used by U.S. President Donald Trump, fueling already rampant anti-Chinese and anti-Asian racism during the pandemic.   

In February, the Asian American Journalists Association came out with recommendations “Urging journalists to exercise care in their coverage of the coronavirus outbreak in China to ensure accurate and fair portrayals of Asians and Asian Americans and to avoid fueling xenophobia and racism.” The guidelines advised news outlets not to use photos of Asian people wearing masks or generic images of Chinatowns in articles without providing proper context, as their use could further stigmatize those communities. The association also warned against the use of terms like “Chinese coronavirus” and “Wuhan virus,” which imply a connection between the virus and a geographic location — an assumption that experts agree is both harmful and inaccurate.

“That term, at this point, obscures more than it clarifies,” says Gregory Trevors, an assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of South Carolina who studies misinformation. “More cases of the virus are outside Wuhan rather than inside Wuhan. And nothing about the virus makes it ‘Chinese,’” he explains. “So, it’s not a useful term.”

There are numerous historical examples of names that stigmatized communities and promoted incorrect information about the origin and transmission of a disease. An outbreak of hantavirus, first identified after the death of a Navajo man in 1993, became known as a “Navajo disease”; Ebola, named for a river near the region where it was discovered, led to countless racist incidents targeting West Africans in 2014; and the disease we now know as AIDS was once called GRID, or “gay-related immunodeficiency.” Names like these can lead to less effective policy measures, fuel xenophobic attacks and discrimination, and contribute to widespread public misinformation. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) has had guidelines for naming new viruses in place since at least 2015. They recommend against the use of geographic locations and other factors that could be misleading or encourage discrimination. But the formal process of naming diseases can be tricky, and once certain names are popularized it becomes difficult to change them.

According to Trevors, the impulse to accept stigmatizing information from dubious sources is linked to our emotions and the way we make decisions in uncertain situations. “When we have fear and anxiety, we’re drawn to find certainty. We don’t like that uncertain state,” he says. “So we try to seek out something that makes us feel security in our lives.

If we don’t really have a good handle on germ theory, we’re going to grab onto pretty much any information that makes us feel like, ‘Oh yeah, I finally have a handle on this, I finally have some knowledge that’s going to protect me.’” 

A recent report from the WHO echoes this claim, connecting the stigmatization around coronavirus to three factors: the new and unknown aspects of the disease, our fear of the unknown, and the tendency to “associate that fear with ‘others.’” 

Unfortunately, this thinking tends to lead to harmful and inaccurate conclusions, and moves us farther away from the global and community-level cooperation needed during a crisis. 

It is damaging. It undermines cooperation, it undermines the idea that we have a shared goal, a shared stake in the situation,” says Trevors. “Every time we use divisive language like that it just further undermines our capacity to respond the way we need to respond.”

While the language surrounding coronavirus continues to change, a concerted shift toward terminology that is accurate, compassionate, and resistant to misinterpretation can have profound effects. In a press conference on March 20, Maria Van Kerkhove, an epidemiologist working for the WHO, explained why the organization had decided to switch to using the term “physical distancing” rather than “social distancing.” 

“[P]hysical distance from people so that we can prevent the virus from transferring to one another; that’s absolutely essential. But it doesn’t mean that socially we have to disconnect from our loved ones, from our family,” she said. During times of crisis, social cohesion and support is essential to promote public health.