The current Covid variant names such as Indian, South African or Britain are in use in everyday talks but if left unchecked, the associated stigma can drive infected people denying or hiding illness to avoid discrimination.
The ever present danger of stigmatization is a matter that the World Health Organization (WHO) is now cautioning against as language can potentially foment negative stereotypes on people.
At the moment, sensitivity around stigmatization has seen the Indian government ask social media companies to drop all references to the “India variant” from their platforms.
It is for this reason that the WHO has given four variants of Coronavirus letters of the Greek alphabet instead of their country of first discovery.
The WHO has named four Covid-19 variants currently referred as the UK/Kent, South Africa, Brazil, and India as Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta respectively, following the pattern down the Greek alphabet.
The WHO, however, said the labels do not substitute existing scientific names involving numbers, Roman letters and full stops, which carry key scientific details and will continue to be used in research.
“While they have their advantages, these scientific names can be difficult to say and recall and are prone to misreporting… As a result, people often resort to calling variants by the places where they are detected, which is stigmatizing and discriminating.
“To avoid this and to simplify public communications, WHO encourages national authorities, media outlets and others to adopt these new labels,” said WHO.
WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove said: “No country should be stigmatized for detecting and reporting variants.”
The Greek naming system will apply to two different classifications of variants — “variants of concern,” deemed the most dangerous, and second-level “variants of interest.”
The Greek alphabet has 24 letters and now WHO has already assigned 10 of them—four to variants of concern and six to variants of interest.
Over the years, diseases are often assigned names after the locations they’re thought to have developed, such as the Ebola virus, which got its name from Congolese river.
Such a naming system can, however, be damaging for those places, since it generates prejudice against countries and their people.