All Greek to Me

Our lives are increasingly controlled by health care gods like the WHO (World Health Organization) and the CDC (you know that one) who spread confusion about all the good virus fighting they are doing. Plain communication seems lost in a welter of political correctness and scientific puffery.

Consider how they use the Greek naming convention. My friend asked why the health care gods had omitted so many Greek letters in naming the new virus variant. “They called out Delta, then skipped over ten letters to get to Omicron.” This got me thinking about why they were compelled to use the 24 Greek letters at all.

The answer is complicated. The WHO was obliged to consider many factors, or so they thought. They settled on Greek names like Alpha, Beta or Gamma “to help the public talk about the variants more easily without reverting to identifying them by the countries in which they were first identified.” That would be “stigmatizing and discriminatory.”

They skipped over Nu and Xi, Nu being too easily confounded with “new” and Xi of course echoing Xi Jinping, a political no-no.

They considered Latinized names, as in biological species, but found that cumbersome. SARS-Covid has more than 100,000 genome sequences, so the researchers got caught up in that, despite the fact that the public doesn’t care about this when talking about the virus. Scientific identifiers, with sets of numbers and letters (as in B.1.617.2 for Delta) will remain for research work.

The question for me is why we have to use Greek at all. How many people read Greek or know its alphabet? The scientists may be comfortable with it; who else is? Why not V1 or V2 to keep it simple? They apparently rejected that because V2 was “the name of a German rocket used during World War II.”

Similarly, a numerical system of “variants of concern,” such as VOC1 and VOC2, was dropped because that “sounded too much like a common swear word.” Can you believe it? Simplicity gives way to political correctness; scientists become censors.

Apparently the custodians of our moral health had big debates about all this, and one can only imagine the fatuity of such discussions. I learned something a long time ago in doing health care communications: if you want to convey important information to people who need it, you must keep it simple and clear.

Happy New Year.

3 Replies to “All Greek to Me”

  1. I thought you made up these reasons for not using simple language, until I clicked on the link to the Advisory Board piece. Now I’m wondering if you made up that whole piece.

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