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Published August 11, 2020

BY MARCENE ROBINSON

From COVID-19 to Ebola, naming diseases after locations breeds fear and hate

UB GSE expert analyzes history and xenophobic impact of disease names

The practice of naming infectious diseases after specific people or places perpetuates xenophobia around the globe, according to Tiffany Karalis Noel, a UB GSE expert on sociocultural inequity.

References to COVID-19 as the “Wuhan virus” or “China virus” have contributed to thousands of incidences of harassment and assault against people of Asian descent. The problem is exacerbated by sensationalist media reports and stories on social media.

“This fear of unknown diseases is a part of human nature, especially when they are deadly and highly infectious,” said Karalis Noel, clinical assistant professor in the Learning and Instruction department, Graduate School of Education.

“Stigmatization of COVID-19, led by some politicians, such as Donald Trump, might have reinforced such discrimination and social exclusion,” she said. “However, it is paramount to recognize the discriminatory behaviors that accompany fear, as they damage not only the sociocultural fabric in the long run, but they also compromise present efforts to contain the disease.”

Karalis Noel calls on social scientists and education professionals to communicate accurate, socially-appropriate information with students and people in the community. She also stresses the importance of media monitoring to help mitigate the spread of misinformation and establish trust with people who may be affected by related discrimination.

Finding a scapegoat

In a commentary published in Social Sciences & Humanities Open, Karalis Noel explored the connection between xenophobia and disease throughout history.

Some media commentators and personalities blame and label “others” as scapegoats for the outbreak. Fault typically falls on the people most closely tied to the disease’s name, regardless of scientific evidence, she wrote.

The 1918 flu pandemic is commonly referred to as the Spanish flu, even though the outbreak didn’t begin in Spain. Journalists in Spain, a neutral country during World War I, were the first to widely cover the pandemic while other nations censored the news to avoid appearing vulnerable to enemies.

The Ebola virus received its name from the Ebola River in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The first outbreak occurred in a village near the river.

The panic caused by media coverage that labels a group of people as “infected” can result in closed borders, tightened immigration policies and hate crimes, Karalis Noel said. Social media communication—not present during previous pandemics —allows xenophobic messages to spread swiftly.

“In many countries, the stigma of an infectious disease can be worse than the disease itself, as well as play a significant role in social and institutional responses.”  

“Within the United States, for example, much of the media’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak has been a proliferation of sensationalized and misinformed headlines,” Noel said. "Hot-button phrases such as ‘Wuhan virus’ and ‘China virus’ promote fear and panic, which propel prejudice, xenophobia and discrimination.”

Within the first two weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, people of Asian descent experienced more than 1,100 reported incidences of verbal harassment, shunning and physical assault, according to the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council’s Stop Asian American and Pacific Islander Hate project.

Data also revealed that Asian American and Pacific Islander women were harassed at twice the rate of men, and 6 percent of the incidents involved children. Many people reported being laid off without cause or rejected from rental housing.

“News headlines can have a powerful effect on the attitudes that people adopt,” said Karalis Noel. “If we wish to combat and overcome xenophobia, we must examine and amend the systems that produce and constrain it.”

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