WHO knows best

Why are we confusing ourselves with greek variant names?

Artillery Row

Here’s a conversation to which, in one form or another, I have been party more than once in the past week or so. Perhaps you have done the same.

The new names of variants, for all their Grecian elegance, are unmoored from context

In discussing the latest twists of the Covid-19 pandemic, person one says something to the tune of “I can’t remember. Is the Delta variant the Indian one, then?”, and person two, if they do not reproach the other for their lack of politesse, says something resembling, “er, I don’t know. I’ll just check”.

What should have been an easy chat about known facts sends one or other scrambling to the style guide, or the BBC.

Because that’s how these things go. The new names of variants, for all their Grecian elegance, are unmoored from context. And although everyone who’s anyone is now using them as if they were always the done thing, their sudden arrival — and mass adoption — has confused many more. When dealing with a matter of life and death, communication ought to be less ritual.

Let’s return to the trouble-free time of last Tuesday, when I was first made aware of the news. I was reading the New Statesman’s newsletter, Morning Call, written by Stephen Bush, when I found myself puzzling at the following sentence, produced without prior explanation:

“Many more note if the Delta variant is ruining the United Kingdom’s lockdown, then the blame for that has to be located at the Prime Minister’s door”. 

Luckily, after a cesura, Bush followed with enough context to make clear what he had meant: “he [the prime minister] kept India off the red list for the best part of a fortnight, his government still hasn’t established meaningful central quarantine or adequate compensation for self-isolation, and so on.”

Only a few paragraphs later did the true explanation emerge. Under “it’s all Greek to me”, Bush noted breezily: “The WHO has announced that new Covid-19 variants will henceforth be given Greek numerals as names, rather than their place of origin or identification. So the United Kingdom’s Kent variant becomes the Alpha variant, while the variant currently worrying British scientists is the Delta variant.”

Thus the media as a whole. The World Health Organisation had announced it, and so the right-thinking press en bloc had cheerfully gone along — even to the point of allowing brief incomprehensibility to slip into normally lucid newsletters. Why has this happened? The answer is no doubt various — these things must have been focus-grouped. But as with so much of purported health policy in the past year, one detects a political edge.

The Greek letter situation is a classic example of pretend simplification which has been insisted upon in aid of a political goal. In this case, the WHO attempted to disentangle the emergence of a disease from geography.  It did so first by militating against the use of “Wuhan” in relation to the word “coronavirus”, then in condemning reference to the “Chinese” disease, and finally (we have come full circle) in attempting to detach all geographical reference from the names of variants which periodically emerge. 

Throughout this pandemic, the WHO has largely been ineffectual. It has little money and few resources. Its press conferences, from the beginning, have had a futile air. Like many international and UN-adjacent organisations, it operates on the ground with the approval of the powers that be — and only so long as it can remain in their good graces. This has hamstrung such things as investigating the origins of the virus itself, and in general doing useful primary work. 

The WHO and has instead contented itself with political and PR goals. Advocating for certain laudable things — like the vaccination of the third world — and also certain absurd things, largely but not exclusively in the domain of language. The WHO suggested the renaming of “social distancing” as “physical distancing”, for example, because who said distancing had to be anti-social?

The Greek letter situation is a classic example of pretend simplification which has been insisted upon in aid of a political goal

Much of this politics of language has a hint of what Wesley Yang calls the “successor ideology” — the amorphous blob of progressive opinion which seems dominant in the governing class of the United States and the well-heeled and globally-minded around the world.

As if to exemplify this fact, even when such ideology actively harmed public health, the WHO for too long maintained that closing borders would not aid the defeat or containment of the virus. For the ideologues, borders are bad, even if their closure can from first principles halt the movement of people and thus of the pathogens some of them regrettably carry in a time of pandemic.

This latest idea is accompanied by the suggestion that, actually, it’s all about simplification. But ask anyone who is not familiar with the epidemiological terminology: what best helps you make sense of the emergence of variants — remembering where they come from, or in what order they were assigned a symbolic name?

We see outbreaks with specific characteristics emerge on TV and social media. They are indelibly linked to those places where they first wrought their particular damage. Geography will always win, not the Greek letters seemingly randomly assigned — they can at best be only a vague representation, insisted upon didactically from the top-down.

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