How the Very Name of ‘Monkeypox’ Contributes to Racial Disparities in Health Care

Photo: Getty Images/FG Trade
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), people can transmit monkeypox via skin-to-skin contact, respiratory droplets, and materials infected by a contaminated person (like clothes). While anyone can contract the virus, it has been billed largely as something only of concern for men who have sex with men (MSM) and Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC). Now—as total cases the virus are declining but the racial disparities of the infection are widening—it's key to note the role of discrimination and racism in perpetuating myths about which communities of people are at risk and who should get vaccinated.

To contextualize this, let’s first look at the very name of monkeypox and its problematic insinuation. “Monkey” is a derogatory term when used to describe African and Black people. In the book Types of Mankind Scientists, published in 1854, scientists Josiah C. Nott and George R. Gliddon were among the first on record to compare Black and African people to chimpanzees, gorillas, and monkeys. It should go without saying that being referred to as and compared to a primate is dehumanizing and devalues the existence of Black people.

In response to public outcry about the name monkeypox being especially harmful to Black communities, the WHO announced plans in June to change it. And in August, the organization shared it would hold a forum to “avoid causing offense to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional, or ethnic groups, and minimize any negative impact on trade, travel, tourism or animal welfare.”

The name monkeypox and its racist associations with BIPOC perpetuate social stigma that reinforces racial disparities.

All of this is to say that words and names are important. Discovered in 1958 and a cousin to smallpox, monkeypox originated in Copenhagen, Denmark. Yep, you read that correctly—not Africa, but Denmark. Furthermore, monkeys were infected with the virus by rodents. And yet, though it was discovered in Denmark, and originated in rodents not monkeys, the name stuck.

While the first reported human case of monkeypox was in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1970, and subsequent outbreaks have been heavily concentrated in certain African countries since, the virus can affect anyone and outbreaks have also occurred in nations worldwide. Still, the name monkeypox and its racist associations with BIPOC perpetuate social stigma that reinforces racial disparities.

How history has repeated itself with insensitive virus naming

Names are important for awareness, educational understanding, and spread of disease. Consider 4H, the precursor term to HIV/AIDS. The Centers of Disease and Control (CDC) referred to it as the "4H disease," naming heroin users, homosexuals, hemophiliacs, and Haitians as the 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 regard the illness as a fringe issue that didn’t affect them. (And before 4H caught on, HIV was originally called GRID, or gay-related immune deficiency. I don’t know which name is worse.)

Think about all the lives that could have been saved if HIV was what we know it as today: something anyone can contract, not something that only affects four specific populations. What if we cared equally for every human body from the very start of the outbreak?

Words are powerful. Calling HIV/AIDS 4H allowed those who did not identify as 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 contract monkeypox, heterosexual, cisgender, white people are absolved of the responsibility to prevent spread, making the current state of racial disparities of monkeypox cases frustrating but unsurprising.

The pattern of racial disparities in viruses

The name of the disease isn’t the only failure supporting the rise of racial disparities of infection. Consider the COVID-19 pandemic as a recent example of inequitable access to care, testing, vaccinations, and systemic support to care for oneself. And then there’s the wider scope of general health-care shortcomings for BIPOC.

This pattern of having racial discrimination unpinning viral outbreaks is supported by a culture of white supremacy. When they hold a false sense of power and control, members of the white majority are able to feel comfortably immune to a virus that anyone can contract and spread. The faux sense of immunity, then, allows the world to continue operating as usual when perhaps it shouldn’t. This is also a way to assure the working class, which is made up largely of BIPOC workers, keeps working to make sure our public transportation is moving forward and our hospitals are cleaned and restaurant food is prepared and delivered to serve the dominant culture.

But, we are not without options to change this landscape. There are plenty of things that can be done to break the pattern:

  • Health care needs an extreme makeover: Bias need to be removed in prevention, treatment, and overall care.
  • We need more diverse researchers, biologists, chemists, and scientists to ensure inclusion in treatment, data collection, and messaging.
  • Inclusive virus-naming committees must exist to remove stigma from any virus or disease.
  • Journalists need to be more informed about how implicit biases show up in their words, and how this can change the way their readers monitor their own health and the health of others.
  • Individually, we must each take the time to learn the history of a virus, preventative measures, testing, and corresponding vaccinations to check bias and privilege.

We cannot have effective public health if we exclude members of the public, instead only focusing on those who are privileged enough to be well. If we continue to stigmatize monkeypox, then the pattern will continue.

Viruses don't discriminate; they look for a host, a body of any identity and intersectionality to infect. When our systems are deeming who is valuable enough to have access to social determinants of health and overall health care, then white supremacy is upheld, leaving BIPOC, members of the disability community, and people who identify as LGBTQ+ in vulnerable, discriminatory positions that may be detrimental to their health.

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