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"Spanish Flu" is the Wrong Name. So are "Chinese Virus" and "Kung Flu"

By Daniel Farber Huang

July 2, 2020

A woman reads The New York Times
A woman reads The New York Times (Photo by Lina Kivaka from Pexels)

Habits are hard to change, even at The New York Times it seems. As recently as June 13, the Times published the online article, When a Cemetery Wedding Was Used to End the Spanish Flu about an ancient marriage ritual, an offering to the gods, to end the pandemic. One would hope the New York Times today would be more, as my teenage children would say, awake.

Names matter and words are weapons. COVID-19 has drawn comparisons to the devastating 1918 worldwide influenza pandemic, which is commonly but wrongly referred to as the “Spanish Flu.”

A common misconception among some of the U.S. population today is that the 1918 influenza that is estimated to have killed anywhere between 50 and 100 million people worldwide originated in Spain, hence the name “Spanish Flu.” It didn’t.

At the time, World War 1 was raging and countries including the U.S., England, France and Germany were strictly censoring information to the public on all matters. Spain was a neutral country and more able to freely report on the horrors of the flu pandemic occurring among its own citizens as well as what was happening elsewhere around the world. Because the pandemic was being courageously reported out of Spain much more than other countries, that nation was associated with the crisis. 

Talk about shooting the messenger.

As a civilization, we at some level are supposed to learn from the past and evolve, become smarter, better. In 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued clear guidance on naming new diseases. To make the world a more accurate place for everyone, the WHO stated that disease names should avoid geographic locations (e.g. Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, Spanish Flu, Rift Valley fever), people’s names (e.g. Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, Chagas disease), species of animal or food (e.g. swine flu, bird flu, monkey pox), cultural, population, industry or occupational references (e.g. legionnaires), and terms that incite undue fear (e.g. unknown, fatal, epidemic).

“Disease names really do matter to the people who are directly affected,” Dr. Keiji Fukuda, the WHO’s former Assistant Director-General for Health Security, said at the time. “We’ve seen certain disease names provoke a backlash against members of particular religious or ethnic communities, create unjustified barriers to travel, commerce and trade, and trigger needless slaughtering of food animals. This can have serious consequences for peoples’ lives and livelihoods.”

Fast forward to, well, this very minute. Referring to the novel coronavirus COVID-19 as the “Chinese Virus” or “Kung Flu” by some government officials, people with influence and others with a divisive agenda is not only ignorant but plainly racist and dangerous as well. And they will keep pushing and pushing and pushing this verbal wedge as long as it serves its purpose of maintaining or strengthening their bonds with their constituents, the “us” versus “thems.”

So what can be done? For starters, news media should objectively and consistently call out hate speech, hateful speech, and misnomers (that is, incorrect or inaccurate names) whenever possible. 

Even the Associated Press Stylebook, the all-seeing eye of journalism writing, advises under the “nationalities and races” topic, “Do not use a derogatory term except in extremely rare circumstances — where it is crucial to the story or the understanding of a news event. Flag the contents in an editor’s note.”

Unlike olden times when the printed page put physical limitations on published words, online news has no restrictions. Understandably, concise writing is still crucial to bring a reader through each article, and I’m not saying to clog up good prose with disclaimers, but certainly there can be more done to make the detrimental nuances objectively more visible to the broader public. 

Early in this pandemic, before the WHO actually labeled it a pandemic, the New York Times referred to COVID-19 at the “Chinese Virus” in a Jan. 20, 2020 daily briefing. To the Times’ credit, however, it hasn’t referred to it that way since, except when quoting the divisive words of (for better or worse) newsworthy individuals.

Interestingly, the day after the Times released the above-mentioned online article about the cemetery wedding during the 1918 influenza pandemic, it published a physical print edition under the headline, “A Century Ago, a Cemetery Wedding to End a Pandemic.” 

Was the print headline changed from “Spanish Flu” to “Pandemic” to save 4 characters of spacing or was it to be more accurate and culturally sensitive? Don’t know. Either way, the online headline and the article itself use the name Spanish Flu multiple times, still dissing Spain in 2020 for events it reported on over a century ago.


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