Letter from the Editor: Addressing discriminatory language in “Emerging Omicron variant poses new risks”

Allison Cohen, Editor-in-Chief

The Omicron variant was first reported to the World Health Organization on Nov. 24, 2021 by South African scientists. The first known infection was from a specimen collected on Nov. 9, 2021. In response, the WHO designated it as a “Variant of Concern” and recommended extra precautions to mitigate its spread. 

While early analysis of the virus occurred in South Africa, the Omicron variant should not be considered a uniquely African problem. As of Dec. 1, the variant was detected in 24 countries. These cases were only able to be identified due to South Africa’s scientific transparency. 

An article titled “Emerging Omicron variant poses new risks” appeared in The Wire on Dec. 9, 2021. This article incorrectly stated that the variant “originated in South Africa.” This statement did not accurately reflect scientific consensus, and instead feeds dangerous bias that directly harms people in the Whitman community and on a global scale. 

Prejudiced coverage of the Omicron variant has direct links to racist travel bans that targeted the countries which reported early cases, such as South Africa, Botswana, and neighboring Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia. These travel bans directly contradicted the WHO’s guidance. 

“Blanket travel bans will not prevent the international spread, and they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods. In addition, they can adversely impact global health efforts during a pandemic by disincentivizing countries to report and share epidemiological and sequencing data,” stated the WHO on Nov. 30. 

“The travel ban will paradoxically affect the speed at which scientists are able to investigate,” said Shabir Madhi, a vaccinologist from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa said to Nature.

According to an article published in Science by two prominent infectious disease experts, “Vaccinating the world is the best hope for ending this global crisis.”

Harmful, racist language about the Omicron variant recalls the wave of anti-Asian violence linked to the initial detection of the COVID-19 virus in China. 

For instance, a national survey conducted by Stop AAPI Hate and the Edelman Data & Intelligence Team found that over one in five Asian-Americans experienced some form of hate incident in the past year. In 2020, the New York City Commission on Human Rights “received more than 200 reports of anti-Asian discrimination at workplaces and in housing searches, in restaurants and stores, along with street incidents.” This was a sevenfold increase from the prior year.

Early media coverage of the pandemic, and the origins of COVID-19, stoked the flames of extant bigotry and racism. 

According to a study in Health Education & Behavior on the relationship between racially changed COVID-19 coverage and anti-Asian bias, “the use of stigmatizing language increased subconscious beliefs that Asian Americans are ‘perpetual foreigners…’ This research sounds an alarm about the effects of stigmatizing media on the health and welfare of Asian Americans.”

The Omicron variant was only identified last month, and it’s not a far leap to anticipate the same kind of hate being directed at those of African descent. Racist caricatures and political cartoons ran in major continental European newspapers are just one example of this trend beginning worldwide.

The Wire takes full accountability for the language used in the original article. It has the potential to further promote discimination, bigotry, and violence associated with COVID-19 worldwide. The Wire wholeheartedly stands against such harmful language. 

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