Politics and the Naming of the Omicron Variant of the Coronavirus

From a post on politico.com by health reporter Carmen Paun:

The World Health Organization skipped over two letters in the Greek alphabet when it named the Omicron variant, which Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz says casts new doubts on the global health body’s credibility when it comes to China.

A technical group at the organization skipped the Nu and Xi letters of the Greek alphabet when it baptized the newest variant of concern, first identified in South Africa. Nu sounds like “new” in English and can lead to confusion, the WHO explained.

And Xi? Well, it sounds like the last name of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

But that wasn’t the reason to skip it, WHO insisted, arguing that Xi is a common name. The Wall Street Journal reports that it is the 296th-most common family name in China.

In any case, a “Xi variant” would inevitably be associated with China or its president, potentially bringing back the stigmatization of Asian people we saw in the first year of the pandemic. Not many people, we suspect, long for a new version of the “Kung Flu,” a derisive name promoted by former President Donald Trump.

But for Cruz, the alphabet game shows that the WHO is scared of the Chinese Communist Party. In a tweet on Friday, he wondered how the global health body could be trusted to call the party out “the next time they’re trying to cover up a catastrophic global pandemic.”

The novel coronavirus was a local outbreak, not a pandemic, in early 2020, when the WHO was trying to get more information about the virus from China. The organization’s praise of China for its response at the time got the WHO and its director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, accusations from conservatives and others that it was too deferential to the Chinese regime. The WHO has fought that perception since.

“As far as I’m concerned the original will always be the Xi variant,” Donald Trump Jr. tweeted Friday.
Also see the New York Times story by Vimal Patel headlined “How Omicron, the New Covid-19 Variant, Got Its Name.”

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