KAOHSIUNG (Taiwan News) — Back in May, the World Health Organization (WHO) made a major policy announcement on the COVID-19 pandemic.
No, they weren’t apologizing for ignoring the letter that Taiwanese authorities had sent them in December 2019 warning about the human-to-human transmission of a new coronavirus in Wuhan, a warning that might have helped the world avoid the worst of a pandemic that has killed more than 5 million people worldwide.
Neither were they recognizing that their investigation into the Wuhan Institute of Virology was fundamentally flawed.
Instead, after wide consultation, extensive reviews, and the convening of a panel of experts from across the globe, they announced that they had agreed on what to call significant new variants of the virus.
The official scientific name for the original virus should be SarsCoV2. But the WHO insisted on COVID-19 (COVID standing for coronavirus disease). This appears to have been at the behest of officials in China who were keen that China should not be seen as responsible for 'SARS 2."
Now we needed to know what to call new variants. It was patiently explained to the world that describing a strain that had emerged in India as "the Indian variant" was racist — just as we were told repeatedly in the early stages of the pandemic that we shouldn’t refer to COVID-19 as the "Chinese virus."
Their much-deliberated solution was that we should use the Greek alphabet, assigning a different letter to each new variant. Fine. It’s as good a system as any, though quite why the WHO had to spend so much time and so many resources deciding on this at the height of a pandemic is anyone’s guess.
It is probably safe to say that there were no Greek speakers involved in the decision because, presumably, they would have realized it wouldn’t take too many COVID-19 variants to start running into issues.
In late September, the Mu variant was officially named. It was classified as a significant new variant despite having been first identified in Colombia as early as January.
Then another significant variant emerged, this time in South Africa. Time for the WHO’s much-vaunted naming system to swing into action again.
Except there was a problem. The next letter in the Greek alphabet was Nu. This would make the name of the new strain the "Nu variant," and while that might work for a while, as soon as another variant emerged things could get confusing — for English speakers at least.
A foreseeable problem, you would have thought, but never mind. The WHO can just skip a letter; no one will notice.
Except then, they had an even bigger problem because the next letter in the Greek alphabet is Xi. When spoken, Xi is pronounced "zz-eye," but when written, it is identical to the name of the chairman of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Normally, this would not be a problem. After all, Xi Jinping (習近平) has created a cult of personality in China as part of his strategy to cling to power, so naming things after him is typically welcomed by the CCP.
But perhaps naming a variant of a virus that originated in China, was covered up by the Chinese government with the acquiescence of the WHO, and has caused the deaths of millions, upended the lives of just about everyone on the planet, and fractured the global economy, is not the sort of ego boost Xi is after.
This left the WHO with little other option but to skip the letter Xi too.
So now, the WHO is talking about the "Omicron" variant and trying to ignore the bad optics of another of their decisions, which illustrates all too clearly how much their strings are pulled by Beijing.
It’s a minor embarrassment in the grand scheme of things and will quickly blow over, not least if "Omicron" proves to be as challenging as some initial assessments suggest. But it serves to show the undue influence that China has over international organizations as well as the characteristic lack of foresight in the WHO’s handling of the whole pandemic.
But one thing is for sure. If there were a Greek letter called "Tsai," we certainly would not be "Xi-ing" the WHO being nearly as cautious.