AS coronavirus evolves and mutates around the world, why are we so dead set on naming the variants after the country where they first evolved?

The World Health Organisation has said it is unhelpful and unscientific to do so, but still we insist on it, and I’ve done so myself, referring in a piece a few weeks ago to the B.1.617 variant as the "Indian variant".

But after seeing reports of a woman of Indian origin being racially abused and attacked in Singapore for not wearing a mask, and hearing anecdotal stories of people who ‘looked Indian’ being verbally abused elsewhere, it feels like yet another way of stigmatising people from different countries and encouraging racism.

Last week, following the attack, the Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong acknowledged that people were anxious about the ongoing pandemic but “that does not justify racist attitudes and actions, much less physically abusing and assaulting someone because she belongs to a particular race, in this case Indian.”

In addition, a minister added that Singaporeans had felt indignation when Chinese Asians had been attacked in other countries at the start of the pandemic, and they should not allow behaviour like that to take place in Singapore (where Indians make up 7.5% of the population amongst 75% Chinese and 15% Malays).

Indeed, who can forget former President Trump’s insistence at calling coronavirus the “China virus” and “kung flu” and the exponential rise in violent hate crime against Asian Americans. In 16 of the largest US cities anti-Asian hate crime increased by 145% in 2020 according to the Centre for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, and just last month an anti-Asian hate crimes bill was passed by the US Senate.

Both the UK and Canada have seen an alarming rise in anti-Asian hate too, with reports of such crimes in London tripling at the start of the pandemic.

Here, Police Scotland report that 474 hate crimes against Chinese and Asian and South East Asian people were reported between January and December 2020 – an increase of 50% from the year before. Campaigners believe the figures are higher but because the Chinese community tend not to speak out, many incidents are not reported. So, clearly, words do matter and how we describe variants and diseases really matters.

The big issue with naming a variant or disease after a specific place is that it risks stigmatising those from there or those who even look like they might be from there, unless of course it’s the Kent variant which was, we were told, 70% more transmissible and went on to infect millions of people in 100 countries globally, but strangely didn’t lead to to an increase in hate crimes anywhere around the world for people from the Isle of Sheppey which, of course, is a good thing.

What it did do, as we probably all remember, was cause flights and movement out of the UK to be suspended temporarily. Now, with the B.1.617 being the ‘variant of concern’ in the UK we are seeing a more critical focus from some elements of the press on inhabitants of places like Bolton, Blackburn and Glasgow’s south side where there are Indian connections.

Why didn’t we have such an issue with our Kentish friends, one might ask. For me this underlines the pointlessness and actually extremely divisive nature of calling the variants by the name of the country they first emerged from.

There is another important reason why naming variants after a country is not helpful. Because of the stigma attached to having a variant named after them, there could be resistance from some countries' governments to coming forward with crucial information about new variants which would be disastrous for global public health.

When the B. 1.351 was first identified in South Africa, health officials lobbied hard to have their country removed from the name of the variant, afraid that it would impact on the country’s fragile economy and bring criticism on the government because of a perception of how it had handled the pandemic.

To be clear, naming the variants something else is not about absolving governments of blame for mishandling, but to stop or limit the targeting of that country’s nationals or those that look like them.

We should do what the World Health Organisation suggests and give the variants their scientific names.

Scientists use a system that compares genetic sequences to create a family tree, then they name each branch. B. 1.1.7 was the variant first detected in Kent, and B.1. 617 was the one detected first in India.

Now, as someone who loves a snappy headline, I accept these names aren’t exactly pretty or easy to remember, but the WHO is working on a new naming convention that avoids geographical areas, albeit a bit slower than one might like.

In the mean time, the headlines ring out – “INDIAN VARIANT THREAT TO JUNE FREEDOM” – and South Asian folk in inner city areas wonder whether they will be singled out for abuse in the way the Chinese community have sadly been.

So let’s move to naming the Covid-19 variants and diseases scientifically or even the way hurricanes are named, so it focuses our attention on the disease rather than people or places associated with that disease or its variants. Surely that’s going to be a lot more useful and less divisive.

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