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The [whatever] virus


Most commonly, we’re calling this bug that’s hit the world – and is spreading around the United States – the coronavirus. The more technically spoken among us have taken to referring to it as COVID-19.

But there are other names. And there’s some history here.

The coronavirus is something like the flu – not exactly the same, and the differences are significant – so it’s worth revisiting some of the names given various strains of flu over the years.

Maybe the most deadly form ever appeared around the end of World War I in 1918, a worldwide pandemic involving the H1N1 virus that may have infected 500 million people around the globe and killed 50 million (One of whom was a grandfather of Donald Trump). They key efforts to combat it were “isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants, and limitations of public gatherings, which were applied unevenly.” (Sound familiar?)

It was dubbed the Spanish flu, though Spain doesn’t seem to have had any special role in connection with it (the virus apparently came from birds).

That was the worst, but there have been others, from the Asian flu of 1957 to the Russian flu of 1977 to the swine flu of 2009 (which actually was linked to pigs). Except for the wine flu, most of them seem to be named – with the naming effort mostly centered in the United States – for places from far away, whether they had much to do with the illness outbreak or not.

This week, President Trump referred to a “foreign virus” (do virii have citizenship?) as the culprit behind the current illness. A number of Washington figures have taken to calling it the “Chinese flu” or the “Wuhan flu,” which at least is a connection to where the illness first erupted, but may be an indicator of an intended marker: Who to blame for this. (Never mind, of course, that China is one of the nations hardest hit by the pandemic.)

It seems the naming of flus tends to relate more to what we think about ourselves and who we don’t much like, than about the actual origins of a strain of flu. For which, after all, no one really wants to take credit.

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