COVID-19 is a global pandemic, and as such its impact is being felt around the world in contrasting cultures. How we communicate about it as a global community is essential to ensure people fully understand the dangers of the virus and comprehend the best methods to stay safe.
What’s in a name? How was COVID-19 named and is it referred to in different ways in other countries? In this article, we’ll discuss the linguistic mutations of the virus, and think about how collaboration and clear communication between the world’s nations will help us tackle the pandemic together, and restore normality.
COVID-19 had a different name during its initial outbreak
COVID-19 was commonly referred to as coronavirus and Wuhan coronavirus during the initial outbreaks in Wuhan, China. The virus was occasionally called Wuhan pneumonia in the earliest days of the outbreak in late 2019.
As language experts and self-confessed geeks, the naming history of COVID-19 throws up some interesting comparisons with diseases of the past for us. Many other diseases have been named after the location they originated from, including Spanish flu and the Zika virus.
World Health Organisation naming recommendations
In January 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended an official name for the virus to clear up confusion and aid collaboration in combating the virus. The WHO recommended 2019-nCov and 2019-nCoV acute respiratory disease as interim names for the virus, following international guidelines they published in 2015 against using geographical locations in the names of disease to prevent stigma.
When Donald Trump used potentially stigmatising rhetoric by referring to COVID-19 as the Chinese virus in a March tweet, he potentially inflicted further damage to relations between these two world superpowers, which have been increasingly fraught since the President was elected.
The virus was officially named by the WHO in early February 2020. WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus explained: “CO for corona, VI for virus, D for disease and 19 for when the outbreak was first identified.”
With their naming conventions, the WHO hoped to avoid political turmoil like this, instead foster clear communication and collaboration between the world’s most powerful countries.
Language is the bridge separating human experience
Before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, the WHO praised China for its comprehensive and transparent response to the outbreak. WHO Director-General said, “We appreciate the seriousness with which China is taking this outbreak, especially the commitment from top leadership, and the transparency they have demonstrated, including sharing data and genetic sequence of the virus.”
How is this collaboration possible? Well, through the medium of language, with the collaboration of multilingual officials in both the Chinese government and the WHO, the potential fallout of COVID-19 has been dampened somewhat, and without a doubt, a lot of skilful translators have played a crucial role in these discussions and collaborations.
Global collaboration is the only way we’ll solve the world’s most pressing problems, from climate change to social inequality and even religious persecution. In our hyper-globalised world, language translation services have never been more vital.