Navigating a Racial and Global Pandemic, COVID-19

By Brook Landeo

Last month, the World Health Organization (WHO) gave us some language around what to call the global virus, SARS-CoV-2, that continues to impact us all. This organization shared the acronym, “COVID-19” that stands for Coronavirus disease of 2019, which is the disease caused by the virus. The few times that I allowed myself to tune into social media, I saw and heard this name, “COVID-19” being referenced in relation to social distancing in the majority of media outlets. It was not until I listened to one of the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force briefings that I heard the names, “Chinese and China virus” being used to reference the Coronavirus disease of 2019. I later saw a Facebook post by the Asian American Studies Program at UW-Madison that showed the phrase, “It’s from China #ChineseVirus” written in chalk on a sidewalk on State Street in Madison. These references angered me, and I reflected on why COVID-19 was now being called something other than the name it was given by the WHO.

Certainly, this is not the first time a disease has been associated with a location or ethnicity. For example, the 1918 flu pandemic took on the name, “The Spanish flu”. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2019), there is not universal consensus regarding where “The Spanish Flu” originated, but it spread globally to the United States and other countries in Europe and Asia at the end of World War I. Another virus that was named in relation to its location of origin is the Zika virus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2019) “The Zika virus was first discovered in 1947 and is named after the Zika Forest in Uganda. Outbreaks of Zika have been reported in tropical Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands.”

After getting into researcher mode to look up all these cool facts for all of you, I realized two things at face value. The first realization that I had was that the names of these viruses were given MANY years ago! “The Spanish flu” was given its name in 1918, and the Zika virus was named in 1947. Although this may have been a popular method of naming diseases many decades ago, we now live in 2020 and have the capacity to evolve over time with a new way of thinking, and at the very least, a new scientific and methodical way of naming global diseases. My second realization was that these names did not accurately describe the locations or ethnicities that they were named after. The Spanish flu impacted millions of people globally, so if the origins of The Spanish Flu were actually tied to Spain, it really did not matter because people of all ethnicities across the globe were also being impacted. The Zika virus exists in several countries as well, so again, the reference to the location of origin is not relevant. These were two reasons, at face value, why the reference to “Chinese and China virus” did not make sense, but this way of thinking didn’t get to the more emotional, human level of why this wasn’t sitting well with me.

As a social worker, I have seen people at their best and also at their worst, usually in moments of crisis. One thing that I know is that people are generally not functioning at their best in times of crisis. People often get scared and shut down completely in an attempt to try to control some aspect of their lives in moments of crisis. When people are feeling scared, it is very easy to blame others and want to hold someone accountable for what is happening around us. Brené Brown states that, “blame is simply the discharging of discomfort and pain”. There is certainly enough discomfort and pain being felt by millions of people around the world during this time of COVID-19. When people label diseases in ways that associate illness and fatalities with ethnicities and locations, people are simultaneously spreading more pain and discomfort, which leads to even more people feeling targeted, hurt and scared. I do not know about you, but this global pandemic is scary enough, and I do not want to be spreading any additional pain or discomfort to anyone. If we can prevent people from feeling hurt and scared by simply calling a disease by its name, COVID-19, don’t you think that we can all make this change?

Sincerely Your Change Maker,

Brook Landeo