In nomenclature of the Covid-19 pandemic, no cultural sensitivities were shown by the WHO to Indian terms, whereas due deference was given to objections from China. It goes a long way to show how rules are bent, and standards are compromised to satisfy powerful entities even in international science and health policies.
By Prof Bal Ram Singh
According to WHO spokesperson, Tarik Jasarevic, the organisation’s best practices for naming diseases suggest avoiding “causing offense to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups.” But it is far from the case when it comes to the naming of the pandemic of the 21st century: COVID-19.
According to an article in Science (Enserink, Science, 12 February, 2020), the Coronavirus Study Group (CSG) of the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses had decided that the virus is a variant of the coronavirus that caused an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2002–03. So, it named the new pathogen as severe acute respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus 2,or SARS-CoV-2.
To name the virus, CSG took a methodical approach. According to CSG chair, virologist John Ziebuhr of Justus Liebig University Giessen, the new virus on the basis of its recently sequenced genome belongs to the same species as the virus that caused the SARS epidemic of 2002–03. However, as per Ziebuhr, a WHO spokesperson had informed him that the name did not go well with China, which had resisted any comparisons between the current crisis and traumatic SARS epidemic. China objected to it as it would imply continuation of SARS-Cov-1, which also happened in that country! It just goes a long way to show how rules are bent, and standards are compromised to satisfy powerful entities even in international science and health policies.
Also, coronavirus was not called as Wuhan or Chinese virus, unlike Spanish flu or MERS virus, which implies Middle East as the origin of the virus.
Covid, Kovind, and Govind
If you type the last name of India’s current President Ram Nath Kovind, you will hit for his name as well as hits for Covid right at the Google Search dashboard. Surprisingly, no science or health groups, government or otherwise, from India have ever examined this issue, let alone raising any issue that Covid invokes the name of current India president. This may also reflect their too much reliance on the Western concepts, framework, and narrative, unlike a country like China and Japan.
Also, typing Govind in Google shows mostly Covid on the dashboard. Govind is one of the names of Lord Krishna, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu.
The Omicron Variant
According to the WHO, it has promoted the naming system as simple and accessible, unlike the variants’ scientific names, which “can be difficult to say and recall, and are prone to misreporting”.
The Covid-19 variant that emerged in South Africa was named after the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet. The name of French President Macron sounds close enough to Omicron, and can be offensive to French people. The New York Times in a recent article entitled “How Omicron, the New Covid-19 Variant, Got Its Name”, (published on November 27, 2021), explained how the variants of Covid-19 were named.
There are seven “variants of interest” or “variants of concern” and they each have a Greek letter. The WHO skipped two letters just before Omicron — “Nu” and “Xi” — leading to speculation about whether “Xi” was avoided in deference to the Chinese president, Xi Jinping.
“Nu is too easily confounded with new,” Tarik Jasarevic, the WHO spokesman, said. “And Xi was not used because it is a common last name,” he added.
Other Greek letters were used for some variants but Nu and Xi were the only ones that were skipped ostensibly to avoid name confusion with the Chinese President.
It is a bit unsettling that ‘Om’, the main syllable in Omicron, is a very common sacred word in Dharmic traditions (Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, and Sikh). It was not put through the ethnic sensitivity test by WHO or any other agencies, and the issue was not even raised by a very vibrant Yoga community spread throughout the world, which uses Om frequently during Yoga practices.
The more worrisome situation is that while the international agencies and scientific community have sparred over the process by which the Covid-19 was named, they have not even considered the blatant violation of their own process.
In summary, it is intriguing that science is so deeply influenced by parochial international political compulsions, shoddy rationality rather than a scientific outlook being practised. Wordsmithing games are being played by international health agencies at the cost of human lives. This is not just ominous sign for the tackling of the Covid pandemic, but it will have a much larger impact on science, in general, in terms of its credibility and its ability to shape the lives of people.
India, after 75 years of independence, should be able to develop a culture and system for robust intellectual, scientific, health, and policy institutions, which could maturely examine and respond to such open violation of international norms.
(The author is visiting professor at Georgetown University, Harvard Medical School, Yang Ming University (Taiwan), and Jawaharlal Nehru University, India.)