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.