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Experts say COVID-19 variant names could cause stigma

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(WKOW) -- As the coronavirus mutates and variants develop around the world, experts say how we name them could lead to increased stigmatization of certain populations.

"Infectious diseases tend to be accompanied by stigma," Dave O'Connor, professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at UW-Madison, said.

The COVID-19 variants are widely known as the UK, Brazil and South African variants, but they aren't necessarily connected.

"It doesn't mean that that's where it first existed, and frankly, it doesn't matter," O'Connor said.

O'Connor is involved with sequencing the coronavirus in Dane County. He says naming a variant can place false blame on a country.

"You don't want to have something that is natural, you know, forever intertwined with a name that is potentially stigmatizing to the people who live in a particular location," he said.

Across the country, Asian Americans are falling victims to racist attacks.

Leslie Bow is a professor of English and Asian American Studies at UW-Madison.

"Asian populations have been stigmatized as disease carriers, and that's something that has been relatively continuous in history," Bow said.

She says this violence was perpetuated by the false language blaming Asians for the coronavirus.

"It didn't help that our president at the time was calling it the Chinese virus, and he was inviting, right, exactly that kind of response," Bow said.

UW-Madison student and member of the Asian American Student Union Angelica Chang says recent attacks left her in disbelief.

"Since I'm Chinese, and a lot of these acts are being targeted towards Chinese Americans, it's terrifying, honestly," Chang said.

Bow says it comes down to language and how your mind associates danger.

"It's really an active choice about the cognitive associations that you are forming in your mind about populations," Bow said.

O'Connor says there is room for change in what variants are called in the scientific and non-scientific communities.

"I do think that we will get better at coming up with names," O'Connor said. "But, it might take some time."

O'Connor says choosing the right name for a variant is a balancing act. He believes there is some useful messaging around naming a virus after a place because it helps recall the nature of outbreaks. But he says variants could be named after the year and a given a number.

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