Mexican Flu, Swine Flu, or H1N1? A Pandemic Gets Rebranded

Whether or not the source for H1N1 was a Mexican pig farm (and this is by no means certain), the implication that this virus is somehow a “Mexican flu” and should be called Mexican flu borders on the racist, and carries with it the implication that Mexico is somehow a country that is dirty and a breeding ground for exotic diseases.

Michael Savage, Michelle Malkin, and Rush Limbaugh may think of Mexico in this way, but most people don’t.

And the designation swine flu, though carrying some original value, is bad for the pork industry, carrying the implication to some that eating cooked pork is unsafe, or a source for potential infection. And so, according to the New York Times, the term of choice for this form of influenza A has now become H1N1:

Agriculture industry officials have been urging leaders to remove the implication that the disease could be transmitted from eating pork. On Thursday, the World Health Organization noted on its Web site that “from today, WHO will refer to the new influenza virus as influenza A(H1N1).”

And this is what President Obama called “swine flu” at his press conference on Wednesday.

I wouldn’t call switching the virus’s name Orwellian. It’s hard to justify, for example, why a hybrid virus containing pig, avian, and human genetic signatures should be called swine flu. But the change of name does show up the power of words—or to put in marketing terms, the power of branding. By giving the virus a scientific designation, and by taking it out of the realm of the familiar, it’s harder to lay metaphors, innuendos, and associations on the name as such. It serves to, at least a little bit, uncloud the thinking in a certain way. If there are to be associations with this virus now, it is with the clinical and impersonal. Swine flu is no longer a name, but a number (or rather, a combination of letters and numbers that no longer broadly signify). Swine flu as H1N1 is now something that just is, and that has to be dealt with, by scientists and governmental bureaucrats, as well as the rest of us.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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6 Responses to Mexican Flu, Swine Flu, or H1N1? A Pandemic Gets Rebranded

  1. ahrcanum says:

    Reality is that the flu apparently started in Mexico and so far, only the Hispanic population is dying. It is not racist. Clinical and impersonal designations are rude when it is human beings dying -no matter what you call it.

    • Hector says:

      Despite HIV was carried by a Canadian citizen from Haiti to Canada, it was first widely scattered throughout the USA before it reached the hole world.

      There is no other place on the earth where chlamydia is most extended than in the USA, with millions of new cases every year.

      So, can we rename now the HIV and Chlamydia with the name “american epidemic”?

      You probably do not care, but the anti-mexican feeling is damaging mexican people, who at last, are victims of a disease too.

      From Saturn, the earth looks like a small dust grain. We all are sharing this grain. And from there, there is no border or different place. It is just a grain.

      The official name of the flu is H1N1.

  2. santitafarella says:


    I find your observation confused. Are you saying that you think it is bad to call H1N1 anything other than Mexican flu—and that this somehow humanizes the designation?

    First, Mexicans object to the term. Does that matter to you—or is it just tough shit for them?

    Also, I believe (I may be wrong about this) that at least one of the deaths was of a man from Bangladesh (he was in Mexico working).

    And nobody at the CDC is saying, “Only Hispanics should worry about dying from H1N1. Whites, Asians, and blacks are pretty much off the hook and shouldn’t be too concerned.” Is this, in your view, just liberal political correctness on the part of the CDC—that the doctors there are not saying this?


  3. ahrcanum says:

    The Asian flu started in Asia. Legionaries named after The American Legion. Russian Flu, etc. Really I mean no offense but calling it H1N1 to me is a sort of a disservice to the dead in Mexico where it seems to have started. So yes, I think it sort of humanizes it and pays tribute to where the majority of the deaths have occurred. H1N1 is the basic strain- the varieties is what can kill ya. If it started in America it would have been called the American Flu. Hey, maybe it started in the U.S. anyways?

    I don’t care if your a green alien, I think the CDC and DHS is falling short on warnings and timeliness for everyone.

  4. santitafarella says:


    Thanks for the clarification. I tend to think that your analogy with Asian flu is a bit off. Asia, being a continent with many nations, is less likely to object to a broad designation. But to call this strain “Mexican flu” is too much, and is, in any case, not the term most people are now using. If the flu had mutated at a pigfarm in Kansas all sorts of stereotypes would have followed, and most Americans would not want a pandemic called “United States flu.” The world’s already pissed at the banking fiasco, and its impact on the global economy. We wouldn’t want to appear as the nation responsible for a new strain of flu. This strain, or something like it, could have mutated on any pig farm anywhere in the world. It just happened to be in Mexico. Had it been in Kansas, pig raising practices (which are notoriously filthy and inhumane) would have been called into question, and the virus would have been blamed on greedy Americans who too quickly and to inhumanely and anti-ecological manufacture pork meat.

    In short, designating the flu after a country reinforces stereotypes.


  5. santitafarella says:


    I liked your reply to ahrcanum. Bravo!


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