The COVID-19 pandemic changed the world in countless ways and dragged a decades-old debate about the names of diseases back into the zeitgeist. Each time a worldwide outbreak of illness occurs, there are always scientific names available; however, the public concocts its own names for them, such as the Russian Flu or German Measles (among many others), regardless of how inaccurate or problematic those monikers may be.
This is not the first time the world has been gripped by a global pandemic, nor is it the first time that an illness has been saddled with a region-specific name. In fact, previous instances of this, like the common name for "the Spanish Flu" in 1918, have been used by some to justify their preferred title for the novel coronavirus. Back then, with millions of influenza deaths, the Spanish Flu got its name despite neither originating in Spain nor afflicting that country with the most cases.
But just because these misnomers have happened before doesn’t mean that it should keep happening. As it turns out, there’s a reason humanity has largely decided to stop naming diseases after people and places.
There may be no greater injustice in the naming of illnesses than that of the Spanish Flu. The pandemic claimed at least 50 million lives between the years 1918 and 1920, and may have infected 30 percent of the world’s population. Though Spain ended up saddled with much of the blame, there are questions as to where the outbreak may have started.
The first recorded case actually originated in Kansas. Scientists agree the conditions of WWI probably helped the epidemic spread among soldiers and then the general public.
As the epidemic traveled from France to the rest of Europe, most nations were hesitant to report on it, fearful of causing a panic during wartime. When it hit neutral Spain, however, the local press had no qualms about blowing the whistle on what was now a full-blown pandemic. Since the first reports about it came out of Madrid, it very quickly became known as the “Spanish Flu.”
This led to increased fear and discrimination of Spanish people - and immigrants in general - in the years following the outbreak, despite the fact that Spain handled it more responsibly than any other nation. It also set a precedent for illnesses being linked to race and ethnicity in general, an untruth that would continue to be an issue throughout the century.
The outbreak of Ebola that hammered West Africa between 2014 and 2016, causing more than 11,000 casualties, gained worldwide attention when 11 cases managed to show up in North America. For many in the United States, Ebola - which refers to the Congo River, near where it was first identified - has come to be known as a Black persons' disease, and that predictably led to racial prejudice amid the panic.
The initial appearance of the disease in Texas sparked outrageous reactions across the country, including elementary school children from Rwanda being sent home for three weeks - despite no cases of Ebola occurring in Rwanda at the time. Black high school football players were taunted with chants of “Ebola!” on the field.
For many, the pandemic and its conveniently African name provided an opportunity to revive old prejudices about the infectious nature of immigrants from the continent.
AIDS And GRID
Though human immunodeficiency virus (or HIV), the virus that leads to the development of AIDS, is believed to have transferred from chimpanzees to humans sometime around 1920, it wasn't identified until 1981 when epidemics occurred in various gay communities across the United States.
This led to the mistaken notion that the illness was somehow related to sexuality itself, and resulted in it originally being dubbed "gay-related immune deficiency" or GRID. Other nicknames, like the "gay plague," were even more explicit. This connotation would prove harmful in countless ways, many of which are intertwined.
Erroneously labeling HIV as something only contracted by gay and bisexual men - and then needle-sharing drug users - prevented many from taking the threat seriously, including governments and medical professionals. The resultant pandemic is still ongoing, with tens of millions having already perished from AIDS-related illnesses.
It also predictably led to increased homophobia in what was already a deeply homophobic society, with LGBTQ+ people unfairly painted as vectors of the disease instead of victims. The effects of the panic can still be felt today, as gay and bisexual men are still unable to donate blood due to FDA anti-HIV regulations.
This discrimination even contributed to the continued outbreak of HIV in the gay community, with gay and bisexual men still at greater risk of contracting it than the general public even in the modern age. This is in part because that shame and discrimination led to a lack of education and promotion of safe sex practices - a grave error that is only now being rectified.
'Mexican' Swine Flu
The H1N1 influenza outbreak of 2009 and 2010 that was widely known as the Swine Flu pandemic first occurred in the United States. Some scientists thought it resembled an illness found in North American pigs, hence the name. In time, the connection to swine became more ambiguous, and it became clear that this was yet another virus that primarily passed from person to person. By that point, however, many had already used the pandemic’s confusing origin to paint it with their own prejudices.
Several politicians, media figures, and members of the public insisted that H1N1 was being brought into the United States via infected pigs or humans from Mexico - despite all evidence pointing to its origin within America’s borders. They then attempted to justify the discrimination of immigrants based on the phony health concern. Some in the media even went as far as to dub it the “Mexican Flu” and promote unhinged conspiracy theories that immigrants were willingly participating in "bio-terrorism" or being outright used by terrorists to attack Americans with the flu.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic of 2020, US Senator John Cornyn was still referring to the supposed fact that Swine Flu had come from China and using that to further heap blame on the country for COVID-19. As of March of that year, he’d yet to correct himself.