editorial

What's in a name?

Posted 4/2/20

The coronavirus that is now racing through our country and around the globe was first named the 2019 novel coronavirus to distinguish it from other coronaviruses such as those that cause influenza …

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editorial

What's in a name?

Posted

The coronavirus that is now racing through our country and around the globe was first named the 2019 novel coronavirus to distinguish it from other coronaviruses such as those that cause influenza and the common cold. In March, the World Health Organization (WHO) named the virus SARS-CoV-2, short for respiratory syndrome coronavirus two, and WHO named the disease it causes COVID-19.

The WHO website says, "Viruses are named based on their genetic structure to facilitate the development of diagnostic tests, vaccines and medicines. Virologists and the wider scientific community do this work, so viruses are named by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV).

"Diseases are named to enable discussion on disease prevention, spread, transmissibility, severity and treatment. Human disease preparedness and response is WHO’s role, so diseases are officially named by WHO in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD)."

But not everyone wants to follow the lead of the WHO. Some have been calling it the Chinese virus because it's believed the virus began in China. Others have been calling it the Wuhan virus because that's the Chinese city where it is believed to have originated.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo prefers Wuhan virus. On March 25, at a conference call of G7 countries—Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the U.S.—Pompeo wanted the group of foreign ministers to issue a joint statement using the name Wuhan virus. The other countries did not agree.

The Washington Post reported, "Other nations in the group of world powers rejected the term because they viewed it as needlessly divisive at a time when international cooperation is required to slow the global pandemic and deal with the scarcity of medical supplies, officials said.”

The group did not issue a joint statement.

On a more personal level, for at least two weeks or longer, we've all been maintaining at least six feet of space from other people when in public. It initially was called social distancing. However, in hindsight, officials believe that social distancing is not the term that should be used. That's because in this time of pandemic, social bonds and connections need to remain as strong as ever between people, and social distancing sends the wrong message.

The WHO decided to start using instead the term physical distancing. Epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove said in a March 20 press briefing, “We’re changing to say ‘physical distance,’ and that’s on purpose because we want people to still remain connected.”

The Governor of California, Gavin Newsom, likes the term shelter-in-place when describing the movement limitations he has ordered to California's residents. Mayor Bill de Blasio wanted Gov. Andrew Cuomo to also use that phrase in limiting the movements of New Yorkers, but Cuomo refused to do so. In reality, there is little difference between the restrictions faced by residents of the Golden State and those faced by residents of the Empire State.

Residents of both states were ordered to stay home or to work from home if they worked in non-essential businesses. But Cuomo said the term shelter-in-place was meant for active-shooter situations, and therefore sent a worse message to people in this pandemic.

In New York City, not all residents are heeding the physical distancing rules that prohibit gatherings of any size and require people to maintain a six-foot distance from one another. De Blasio became frustrated that so many people are ignoring the order that, on March 29, he announced the possibility of $500 fines for those who break the rules.

While there might be some that believe that these language distinctions have no meaning, how we understand our world, for the most part, comes from how we name it. How we name things is part of how we interpret them.

Right now, in terms of human well-being, it’s important that we understand that we are internationally connected. And while we are physically distancing ourselves, we really are experiencing that we are all connected socially. Let us use language that reflects that distinction.

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