Coronavirus gets renamed to COVID-19: Will it reduce stigmatisation?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has revealed that the novel coronavirus (nCOV) is now renamed as COVID-19. CO stands for corona, VI for virus, and D for disease, and 19 for the year it was first discovered, said WHO's director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus during a press conference in Geneva. According to earlier statements by WHO, given the increasingly rapid and global communication through social media and other electronic means, "it is important that an appropriate disease name is assigned by those who first report a new human disease".

Under agreed guidelines by WHO, World Organisation for Animal Health, and Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, having an official name is necessary to prevent stigmatising. According to the WHO chief Ghebreyesus, this new name also provides a standard format for any future coronavirus outbreaks.

"We had to find a name that did not refer to a specific geographical location, animal, and individual, or group of people in line with international recommendations for naming aimed at preventing stigmatisation. It also has to be pronounceable and related to the disease," Ghebreyesus explained. WHO also previously said that it "strongly encourages" scientists, national authorities, and international media to follow the best practices set out when naming a human disease. If an inappropriate name is released or used or if a disease remains unnamed, WHO may issue an interim name for the diseases and recommend its use, so that inappropriate names do not become established.

The guidelines come as members of the public globally started addressing the coronavirus colloquially as "Wuhan virus" when it first broke in December 2019. The term was derived from the city of Wuhan in China, which saw the first few cases. The outbreak was later reported officially by WHO in Wuhan, China, on 31 December 2019, and several articles have been circulating online associating the virus to consumption of live bats and snakes. Similarly, MERS, for example, also faced a similar stigmatisation given that it stands for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome and was first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012. The name itself was closely linked to the Middle East, making many think the region was responsible for the disease.

Speaking to Marketing about the renaming of the coronavirus , Nick Foley, president Southeast Asia Pacific and Japan, Landor said  the ‘coronavirus’ name has not only had unfavourable ramifications on China, but for Chinese origins living around the world. However, Foley said the change in name will "not really reduce stigmatisation on China or Chinese travellers". He added,

As the old saying goes, ‘you never get a second chance to make a first impression’.

"It will be a long time before the Chinese city of Wuhan is free of being immediately associated with a dangerous diseases. For China, the problem is even greater given SARS doesn’t feel that long ago to a many people. The global community is understandably curious as to why lethal viruses and that impact and inconveniences, continue to originate from China. It’s a less than ideal position for the ‘China brand’ to occupy amongst its many target audiences,” he added.

According to Foley, this change of name might potentially lead to confusion in communications to the public. "It feels poorly thought through and highly reactive. Furthermore, it will only serve to heighten confusion at a time when anxiety is already running at fever pitch," he said.

Meanwhile, Carolyn Camoens, managing director Asia, Hume Brophy was of the view that the change in name for coronavirus follows a similar pattern to other viruses' initial name, which may have been aligned with a place of origin and replaced with a medical terminology. For example, "swine flu" which emerged around 2009 was later renamed to H1N1. While ultimately there was no strong evidence found around the flu being spread through eating pork, the "swine flu" label had a dire impact on pork farmers who saw a decline in sales, according to an article on NBC News.

Unlike Foley, Camoens said the renaming to COVID-19 is a short leap from COV, which is a common abbreviated term used for "coronavirus". As such, it will be well understood by the public that it is the same disease being spoken of. She added that in the last week itself, there has been a noticeable shift in reference away from “Wuhan virus” to “COV”.

"In terms of shifting the common use of the term, I think we’ll see the authorities lead on this and the public take their cue from them.Until the threat is contained, we will see caution continue around communities more seriously affected by the disease– not just the Chinese. The renaming will hopefully send a message that fighting this requires a global mentality," she said.

Currently, the COVID-19 has 44,138 confirmed cases globally and as of now, 47 cases in Singapore. In addition, scientific reports have stated that coronavirus has similar attributes to SARS-related coronavirus (SARS-CoV) that too interacts with animal and human hosts to infect them. SARS first hit Singapore in 2003, which saw the Ministry of Health (MOH) form the task force to combat spread. According to The Straits Times, about 238 people were infected in Singapore, among 8,096 cases globally due to SARS.