To put this in context, let’s first look at the name monkeypox itself and its problematic implication. “Monkey” is a derogatory term when used to describe Africans and blacks. In the book Types of scientists of humanity, published in 1854, scientists Josiah C. Nott and George R. Gliddon were among the first on record to compare blacks and Africans to chimpanzees, gorillas, and monkeys. It goes without saying that being referred to and compared to a primate dehumanizes and devalues the existence of black people.
In response to public outcry over the name monkeypox being especially harmful to black communities, the WHO announced plans in June to change it. And in August, the organization shared that it would hold a forum to “avoid offending any cultural, social, national, regional, professional, or ethnic group, and minimize any negative impact on trade, travel, tourism, or animal welfare.”
The monkeypox name and its racist associations with BIPOC perpetuate the social stigma that reinforces racial disparities.
All this is to say that words and names are important. Discovered in 1958 and a cousin of smallpox, monkeypox originated in Copenhagen, Denmark. Yes, you read that right, not Africa, but Denmark. In addition, the rodents infected the monkeys with the virus. And yet, even though it was discovered in Denmark and originated in rodents, not monkeys, the name stuck.
Although the first reported human case of monkeypox was in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1970, and subsequent outbreaks have been largely concentrated in certain African countries since then, the virus they can affect no one and outbreaks have also occurred in countries around the world. Still, the name monkeypox and its racist associations with BIPOC perpetuate the social stigma that reinforces racial disparities.
How history has repeated itself with insensitive virus names
Names are important for awareness, educational understanding, and the spread of disease. Consider 4H, the precursor term for HIV/AIDS. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) referred to it as the “4H disease,” naming heroin users, homosexuals, hemophiliacs, and Haitians as high-risk groups. There was so much hate wrapped up in such a small name, making it easy for members of the wealthy white majority to see the disease as a marginal problem that didn’t affect them. (And before 4H became popular, HIV was originally called GRID, or Gay-Related Immune Deficiency. I don’t know which name is worse.)
Think of all the lives that could have been saved if HIV was what we know today: something anyone can get, not something that only affects four specific populations. What would happen if we cared equally for all human bodies from the beginning of the outbreak?
Words are powerful. Calling HIV/AIDS 4H allowed those who did not identify or live with one of the Hs to feel free of any responsibility to prevent or report the virus. We are seeing this today with monkeypox. With the notion that only MSM and BIPOC can get monkeypox, straight, cisgender, white people are absolved from responsibility for preventing the spread, making the current state of racial disparities in cases of monkeypox frustrating but not surprising.
The pattern of racial disparities in viruses
The disease’s name isn’t the only failure supporting rising racial disparities in infection. Consider the COVID-19 pandemic as a recent example of unequal access to care, testing, vaccinations, and systemic support to take care of yourself. And then there is the broader scope of general health care deficiencies for BIPOC.
This pattern of racial discrimination that sparks viral outbreaks is underpinned by a culture of white supremacy. Armed with a false sense of power and control, members of the white majority can feel comfortably immune to a virus that anyone can catch and spread. The false sense of immunity, then, allows the world to continue to function as usual when perhaps it shouldn’t. This is also a way to ensure that the working class, which is largely made up of BIPOC workers, continues to work to make sure our public transportation moves forward and our hospitals are cleaned and restaurant food is prepared and delivered to serve. to the dominant culture.
But, we are not without options to change this scenario. There are many things that can be done to break the pattern:
- Healthcare needs an extreme makeover: bias in prevention, treatment, and care in general needs to be removed.
- We need more diverse researchers, biologists, chemists, and scientists to ensure inclusion in treatment, data collection, and messaging.
- Inclusive virus naming committees should exist to remove the stigma of any virus or disease.
- Journalists need to be more informed about how implicit bias shows up in their words and how this can change the way their readers monitor their own health and the health of others.
- Individually, each of us must take the time to learn the history of a virus, the preventive measures, the corresponding tests and vaccinations to verify bias and privilege.
We cannot have effective public health if we exclude members of the public and instead only focus on those who are privileged to be well. If we continue to stigmatize monkeypox, the pattern will continue.
Viruses do not discriminate; they seek a host, a body of any identity and intersectionality to infect. When our systems are considering who is valuable enough to have access to social determinants of health and health care in general, white supremacy is advocated, leaving BIPOCs, members of the disability community, and people who identify as LGBTQ+ in vulnerable and discriminatory positions that can be detrimental to their health.