Names can create stigma. That was the view back in May 2015 when the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nation’s specialized agency responsible for international public health, developed new guidelines or “protocols” for naming epidemics and pandemics.
At the time, the Assistant Director-General for Health Security, Dr Keiji Fukuda, said, “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. This can have serious consequences for peoples’ lives and livelihoods.”
As a novel coronavirus spread across China and then the world, the WHO put these new protocols into action. The WHO came up with the official name for the disease, COVID-19, and implored the world to use it. The WHO, UNICEF, and International Committee of the Red Cross went so far as to even create a special guide to “preventing and addressing social stigma.” In the guide’s last update on February 24, 2020 the top point was “don’t attach locations or ethnicity to the disease, this is not a ‘Wuhan Virus,’ ‘Chinese Virus’ or ‘Asian Virus’.”
The protocols and guide were invaluable. Around the world, ethnically Chinese people – whether born in those locations, recently immigrated, or just tourists – had been facing racism and xenophobia as a result of COVID-19. These instances were widely and openly reported in media around the world, and rightly received condemnation from numerous leaders of all nationalities and ethnic origins. The UN has continued to appeal to the world – including U.S. President Donald Trump – to stop using terms like “Chinese virus,” as such language can incite such racist and xenophobic acts.
But while naming COVID-19 in a neutral way was crucial to limiting social harm, it should have been just a start. To really limit stigma, xenophobia, and prejudice, the WHO and UN more broadly should have unveiled a set of reporting guidelines.
Let me briefly explain with another example.
In the U.K., it is recognized that how suicides are reported by governments and media organizations is sensitive. Social harm can be created – copycat suicides can arise, clusters can arise, and of course direct family concerns need to be managed. Therefore, the country’s leading charity to combat suicides, the Samaritans, has a set of guidelines to help governments and media organizations report suicide cases. The guidelines ensure they can report on suicides while at the same time limit any social harm in doing so.
So what has this got to do with COVID-19?
Reporting on people who have COVID-19 is vital — but if done incorrectly it can create social harm. The way that governments and the media are currently reporting about the people who have the disease and where they come from risks doing just this.
For instance, maps allegedly reporting “where Africa’s COVID-19 cases” were “imported” from are currently being circulated, claiming to show that the majority originated from Europe, the United States, and the UAE. These are countries with large African diaspora communities. However, many of the government reports on which these maps are based do not distinguish whether arrivals from these countries were members of the diaspora, or even whether they had traveled from another embarkation point.
As a result, without this crucial extra information, the idea of COVID-19 coming from a foreign country and coming from a foreigner has been conflated.
Thus, in my own country Kenya, for example, fear of foreigners was initially high. Migrants, tourists, and citizens from ethnic minorities were viewed with suspicion, called names, and subjected to attacks. Yet the reality is that foreign nationals who have contracted COVID-19 account for very few cases across Africa to date.
Where I live, in China, there are also reporting issues. As the number of people contracting COVID-19 from within the country has reduced, attention has turned to people who contracted COVID-19 before or during their travel to China from overseas. While the government and media report these as “imported” versus “domestic cases,” they rarely report that the vast majority of so-called “imported cases” (approximately 90 percent) involve Chinese nationals returning home.
As a result, anecdotally, there has been an increase in xenophobia. “Foreigners” from all over the world – black and white – have been called “junk” and not allowed into some restaurants and markets. They are seen as possible COVID-19 carriers whether or not they have remained in the country during the outbreak or even were born in China.
These are not unique issues, and they will only become more complex as the virus spreads. For instance, in the United States, the African American community currently seems to be disproportionately hit by the virus. In African countries, there are concerns that people in slums and those living with HIV might be hit hardest by COVID-19. In China, there is already a media campaign to ensure that people from Wuhan, the epicenter of the initial outbreak, do not face discrimination in the rest of the country as their lockdown ends. If people’s backgrounds are not reported responsibly in the future, it could mean that some sections of the community become stigmatized as carriers.
Moreover, in every country there is a relationship between reporting and government policies. Inaccurate or limited reporting can sometimes cause the public to call for xenophobic policies, or alternatively, it can mean journalists are unable to hold governments to account when they enact discriminatory policies.
Transparency is crucial and we need high-quality communication from governments as well as the media more than ever during these difficult times. The WHO took a first step in recognizing how the wrong name for an epidemic or pandemic can have negative effects. Like the Samaritans have helpfully done for suicides, the UN or another organization needs to now finish the job and provide guidance on how the world should report all the facts about people that have contracted COVID-19, consistently and responsibly.
Hannah Ryder is the CEO of Development Reimagined, an independent international development consultancy with headquarters in China, and with specialists on Africa-China cooperation.