Unwieldy, Anti-‘Stigma’ Coronavirus Names Confuse Indonesian Official

An Indonesian health officials takes temperature readings of arriving passengers amid concerns of the COVID-19 coronavirus at the Jakarta international Airport on February 23, 2020. - The World Health Organization warned Friday that the window to stem the deadly coronavirus outbreak was shrinking, amid concern over a surge in cases …
GOH CHAI HIN/AFP via Getty Images

A senior Indonesian Health Ministry official baffled journalists by insisting that a man who tested positive for “SARS-CoV-2” did not have “COVID-19,” the Jakarta Post reported on Tuesday. The former is the virus that causes the latter.

The Wuhan coronavirus, as it was more commonly referred to before the World Health Organization (WHO) debuted the official names for the virus and disease, originated in China and has infected over 80,000 people worldwide since Beijing made the outbreak public in January. Chinese Communist Party officials have repeatedly complained that any focus on limiting contact with people exposed to the virus in Wuhan is “racist” and have consistently pressured the WHO to conform to China’s political agenda.

In the most blatant case of bullying the WHO, the Chinese government has forced the organization to ban the government of Taiwan from participating in coronavirus response, claiming that Taiwan is not a sovereign state. The WHO insists that it trusts Beijing to offer aid and relevant information to Taipei, making direct contact unnecessary. The WHO has not clarified why it believes that China will act in good faith towards Taiwan after repeatedly threatening to invade it and have the “bones ground to powder” of anyone who acknowledges the reality of Taiwanese independence.

The WHO claimed it was necessary to give the Wuhan coronavirus a name not associated with any particular place to avoid “stigma.”

On Monday, Health Ministry disease control official Achmad Yurianto addressed the case of a Japanese citizen who arrived in his native country and tested positive for the virus after visiting Indonesia. The man, who has only been identified as a male in his 60s, reportedly visited a health facility in Japan before visiting Indonesia with mild cold symptoms and was not found to be a viral carrier. After returning from a trip to Indonesia a few days later, the man was reportedly hospitalized with a severe respiratory infection. The case has called into question Indonesia’s screening measures for the disease, as it appears no one stopped the man from traveling back and forth.

Yurianto attempted to calm the nation on Monday by insisting that the man was “not a case of COVID-19,” but of “SARS-CoV-2,” the virus that causes COVID-19. While this is technically possible – an asymptomatic patient would have SARS-CoV-2 but not COVID-19 – Yurianto also argued falsely that the two terms referred to different viral DNA structures.

“What we have now is a COVID-19 epidemic. There are experts saying that COVID-19 is different from SARS CoV-2, and that the differences reach 70 percent,” he said in remarks prior to rejecting the notion that the Japanese man had “COVID-19.”

The confusion has raised alarm, as it suggested that government health officials may be confused by the terminology and thus incorrectly categorizing cases. Officials around the world have yet to identify other similar mistakes in counting viral carriers as confirmed cases of the virus, or not doing so, based on the presence of symptoms, but reports from whistleblowers inside both China and Iran have indicated that authoritarian governments are manipulating the number of confirmed cases of each to make the outbreaks appear minimal.

In China, locals in Wuhan anonymously reported that, in the early days of the outbreak, hospitals actively rejected patients showing clear symptoms of infection for testing, some of whom died without being tested for the virus at all. Other reports suggested that some potential coronavirus cases were branded “pneumonia” deaths without testing for the novel coronavirus.

In Iran, a lawmaker from the nation’s most affected city, Qom, accused Tehran of reporting fake virus numbers to the WHO to hide dozens of deaths caused by it.

There is no indication that Indonesian officials are similarly trying to hide coronavirus cases. Instead, the Yuriarto case indicates that pressure from China to brand the new virus with a name that does not clearly identify it as the same virus that originated in Wuhan has resulted in a baffling identification system for some in global governments.

In February, the WHO announced they would name the virus SARS-CoV-2, to identify it as a close relative of the Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) coronavirus. The infection caused by the virus would be named COVID-19.

“We had to find a name that did not refer to a geographical location, an animal, or an individual or group of people,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, arguing that not doing so would lead to “stigma.”

It is common practice to name illnesses and viruses after locations or animals. The Ebola virus is named for the eponymous river in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), another coronavirus, similarly received a name tied to its origins. The Zika virus is named for Uganda’s Ziika forest. The name norovirus, typically referencing a gastrointestinal infection, originated from Norwalk, Ohio, where it was first observed as a separate virus.

Yet in 2015, the WHO announced it would move away from “stigmatizing” names. The move was received with concern at the time:

“It will certainly lead to boring names and a lot of confusion,” predicts Linfa Wang, an expert on emerging infectious diseases at the Australian Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong.

“You should not take political correctness so far that in the end no one is able to distinguish these diseases,” says Christian Drosten, a virologist at the University of Bonn, Germany.

In naming the Wuhan virus, the WHO admits that it not only wanted to avoid associating the virus with China, but it wanted to avoid associating the virus, which is genetically very similar to SARS, with SARS.

“From a risk communications perspective, using the name SARS can have unintended consequences in terms of creating unnecessary fear for some populations, especially in Asia which was worst affected by the SARS outbreak in 2003,” the WHO explains on its Wuhan virus webpage. Therefore, the infection was given the name COVID-19.

Care to avoid associating the coronavirus with China appears to have done little to silence Communist Party complaints of “racism” surrounding coronavirus coverage.

“For the hate of it – hatovirus, the human and cultural offshoot of the coronavirus, the outer world is the epicenter. The vector is the media, especially the new media,” a column in the People’s Daily, the official Chinese Communist Party newspaper, declared in early February. “While in Europe and the Americas the Asian is the fall guy and ‘demon’ that deliberately created the virus, in Asia, the Chinese is singled out. So pathetic!”

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