As the virus behind COVID remains active in large populations, it mutates and produces new strains. This is one reason why continuing to follow safe practices until herd immunity is reached is so important. If the “freedom” to serve as mutant incubators persist widely and long enough, the current vaccines will be reduced in effectiveness and another pandemic could occur. But my concern here is not with that issue, but with referring to COVID variants by their regions of origin.
One example is what is called the “UK” or “British” variant. The correct designation is B .1.1.7. Other examples include what are being called the “South African variant” and the “Brazilian variant.” These should also be referred to by their correct, non-geographic designations and here is why.
Trump and his fellow racists made the conscious decision to call the virus the “China virus.” I have argued why this usage is racist in other essays, so I will not repeat my arguments here. While responsible media outlets did not use “China virus”, the use of the geographic names of the variants is quite common. They should not be doing this, for the same reasons I advanced against using the term “China virus.” Moral consistency requires applying moral principles the same way in similar contexts and if it is wrong to use “China virus” then it is wrong to use “UK variant.”
One concern with the widespread used of the regional name of variants is that doing so allows people to argue that “China virus” is acceptable to use and is not racist. After all, if the mainstream media and scientists can talk about the “UK variant” without being racists, then surely Trump and his fellows can use “China virus” without being racist. While this argument is generally made in bad faith; the reasoning is solid: if “UK variant” is not racist, then “China virus” would (probably) also not be racist. The easy and obvious reply is that using the term “UK variant” is wrong, so using “China virus” is also wrong. The same applies to naming any other variant based on its apparent region of origin.
To anticipate a straw man attack, I am not claiming that the origin points of a virus or a variant should be ignored or stricken from the scientific data. Knowing where a virus or variant originated is critical to determining the origin of the virus and is also essential to planning a response to that virus. As such, it is morally acceptable to note that B.1.1.7 seems to have originated in the UK, just as it is correct to note that the original virus originated in China. However, saying “the UK variant of the China virus” would be morally wrong—again, I have made these arguments at length in earlier essays.
In the case of the “UK variant” example it is interesting and enlightening to look at how racism in naming diseases works. After Trump and his fellows started calling it the “China virus”, violence against Asians and Asian Americans increased significantly in the United States. To be fair to Trump, some of this increase would have certainly occurred even if he had scrupulously called it by its correct name—after all, xenophobia and racism centered on disease is firmly established in the United States. All Trump did was throw a few more logs and some gasoline on an established fire.
While using “UK variant” is still wrong, it is interesting to note that there has been no uptick in hate crimes against people of UK origin or ancestry. Brits in the states are not hiding their accents to avoid being attacked by angry anti-Brit people who are blaming them for the new strain. The UK is not being described as dirty or diseased (well, other than the way everyone is now diseased) and there is not xenophobic rhetoric on the right against the UK. As an American with publicly acknowledged documented ties to 17th century England, I would be among the targets for any anti-WASP racism erupting over the “UK variant.” But no one has shouted “Dr. Flu!” at me or attempted to assail me. In fact, it would be absurd for me to express any concern that I or any other white person would be subject to racism because of the use of “UK variant.” While some might take this as some sort of proof that “UK variant” is not wrong to use and thus “China virus” is not wrong to use (and so not racist to use), this would be either a bad faith argument or utterly miss the point. The reason the use of the “UK variant” has had no meaningful consequences for white people (and yes, I know that the UK is not entirely white, but it is thought of as being a “white nation”) is not that its use is morally correct. Rather it is because of the nature of American racism.
In closing, responsible media outlets and scientists should act morally and stop using the regional name for variants. While the consequences vary based on the region, consistency demands that the correct names for viruses be used rather than their area of origin. One should not feed the racists.