Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Disease and Discrimination

Karen Stollznow

The emergence and spread of COVID-19 has led to increased discrimination against Asian people, and specifically led to anti-Chinese prejudice.

The virus is believed to have originated in a wet market in Wuhan, China, in 2019. This has inspired some people to brand it “the Wuhan virus”, “the Chinese virus”, or even the “Kung flu.”

Some of our world leaders have resorted to this kind of inaccurate, discriminatory labeling. Before a press briefing at the White House in March 2020, a photographer noticed that within President Trump’s notes the word “Corona” had been crossed out with a marker and replaced with “Chinese”.

“Thank you all for being here, and we continue our relentless effort to defeat the Chinese virus,” Trump announced to reporters.

Panic and fear of disease can often bring out the worst in people, who feel they need someone to blame.

Historically, naming diseases has been an international blame game. Syphilis was once called the “French Pox” among the British and Germans, the “British Disease” by the Tahitians, and the “Spanish Pox” to the Dutch and French. The Russians blamed it on the Polish, who in turn called it the “German disease.” In India and Japan it was called the “Portuguese disease,” in Persia it was called the “Turkish disease,” and in Turkey it was known as the “Christian disease.”

There is a parallel today with AIDS. Those in the western world trace its origins to Africa. However, many people in Africa attribute AIDS to the West, where it is known as “the American disease.”

Some disease names are “toponymous”, that is, they are named after places, which give a glimpse into their discovery and history. For example, Ebola was named after the Ebola river in Zaire, while the Zika virus was named after the Zika forest in Ghana. Lyme Disease was first recognized in 1975 the town of Old Lyme, Connecticut, while Ross River Fever was named after the river in Queensland, Australia, where it was first identified.

Many diseases are named after countries (e.g., Spanish influenza and German measles), people (e.g., Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimer’s Disease), or animals (e.g., bird flu and swine flu). These names are often misnomers and they can be offensive for various reasons. For example, German measles was so named for the German physicians that first described the infection, not because it originated in Germany. For this reason, the disease is more frequently called rubella (“little red” in Latin) in clinical settings.

Down Syndrome was formerly known as “Mongolism”, in the belief that there was a racial element to the condition. In 1965, the World Health Organization (WHO) abandoned the name at the request of the Mongolian People’s Republic. Down Syndrome was renamed after British physician John Langdon Down, who first described the condition, but had also bestowed the condition with its original inaccurate name.

This kind of naming is dangerous because it can stigmatize and demonize places, people, and animals.

The WHO has since called for the careful naming of new diseases to avoid the use of names that are unscientific and misleading.

For a further discussion of this topic, see Chapter 5 of my forthcoming
On the Offensive: Prejudice in Language Past and Present’.

About The Author

Karen Stollznow

Karen Stollznow is an Australian-American linguist and author. She is a Researcher at the Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research and was formerly a Research Associate at ...

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