The Coronavirus Is Not Chinese
We need to use the right language in a pandemic.
Four months ago, few among us knew that coronavirus is the name of a family of viruses — and none of us knew that a new strain first identified in Wuhan, China, in late December 2019 would cause a disease now called COVID-19 that would become a pandemic. But now these words are a part of our everyday life. And, yes, we think it can be helpful to know the distinction between the virus’s family name, this particular strain’s name, and the illness’s name, but much more importantly: Do not call it the “Chinese virus.”
Viruses don’t have a nationality, and as we can clearly see, they do not discriminate in whom they infect. It’s a racist misnomer to call it the “Chinese virus” or the “Wuhan flu.” It’s an attempt to politicize language about an illness that is a global crisis, to place blame when lifesaving action is what’s needed. As the US has been criticized for failing to act more quickly to test people for and contain the coronavirus outbreak, President Donald Trump has deliberately and repeatedly called it the “Chinese virus.”
Early on in the HIV/AIDS epidemic, it was called “gay-related immune deficiency,” or GRID. Even worse, it was casually referred to as “the gay plague.” It’s clear how that kind of language can perpetuate the idea that a disease may only impact a select group of people — which is entirely inaccurate — and how it preys on prejudices. And such terminology allows leaders to continue to ignore something that could wind up killing millions of people.
So while we encourage you to write “the coronavirus” (using the article the) to refer to the kind of virus and to say “COVID-19” when you mean the disease, we also want to acknowledge that some abuses of language are far more detrimental than others.
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News about the pandemic has been publishing at a rapid clip these past few weeks, and the copydesk has been keeping up and sorting through the language. We just added a new section to our style guide: The Coronavirus Pandemic.
- The new coronavirus, or the novel coronavirus, officially named SARS-CoV-2, is a strain of the coronavirus virus family that originated in late 2019 in Wuhan, China.
- Always use the article the when discussing the coronavirus (e.g., the spread of the coronavirus, not the spread of coronavirus) — even in headlines (differing from AP here).
- The disease it causes is called COVID-19, which stands for coronavirus disease 2019. Since the coronavirus is more commonly used, explain the distinction on the first reference of COVID-19. For example: The US now has more than 15,000 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
- It is not accurate to write “a new virus called COVID-19.”
- When we talk about cases of people who are sick, it makes sense to say COVID-19 cases and deaths from COVID-19. Similarly, people can be infected by the coronavirus, but they get COVID-19.
Further, as our collective lifestyles have been changing, forcing us to adapt to the ongoing crisis, words like handwashing, nonessential, and takeout are being used daily. We’ve been enforcing some guidance for specific words related to the pandemic. Here are some words that have been appearing in coronavirus posts that we've been changing for BuzzFeed style:
- 6 (not six) feet apart (We use numerals for measures of distance.)
- 1918 flu pandemic (not the Spanish flu)
- boomers (lowercase)
- canceled, canceling, cancellation
- Defense Production Act (not Protection)
- drive-through clinic (not drive-thru, which is how we style the noun form)
- elbow bump (n.), elbow-bump (v.)
- face mask (two words)
- flulike (no hyphen)
- frontline (adj.), front line (n.)
- handwashing (one word, no hyphen)
- health care (two words)
- N95 (capitalize N when referring to the air filtration certification)
- nonessential (no hyphen)
- to shelter in place (v.), shelter-in-place order (adj.)
- social distancing (compound n., never hyphenate), social-distance (v., but socially distance is preferred)
- takeout (no hyphen)
What’s the Word?
quarantine (n., v.) (kwȯr-ən-ˌtēn)
Quarantine’s history is rooted in the French word quarantaine, meaning “about 40.” It morphed into meaning “a period of 40 days,” in the biblical reference to the time Jesus spent in the desert. In the 1600s, the 40-day definition was applied to the time period ships were isolated to protect port cities from potential disease, with the Italian word quarantena as its source. These separate definitions, as well as simply “isolation as protection from disease,” were encompassed by the English word quarantine, which first appeared in 1617.
Used in a sentence: If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus, it’s important to stay in quarantine in your home, whether you have symptoms or not.
And finally, a tweet: