Case Number: 2994

Council Meeting: FEBRUARY 2021

Decision: No Grounds to Proceed

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Detail Needlessly Prejudicial


Justin McCabe complained that Stuff has been using the term “South African” strain when referring to a current strain of the COVID-19 virus. He said this was not only xenophobic to all South Africans, but extremely racist as it pins this strain of the virus on South Africans. To be factually correct it should be written as the South Africa strain of COVID-19. In contrast, another strain is referred to as the UK strain.

A South African is a person, whereas the United Kingdom is a place, one is an adjective and one a proper noun, so the comparison did not fit.

He noted that the term “Chinese” Covid-19 was condemned by the HRC as it pinned blame for the virus on Chinese people.

Stuff, in its initial response to Mr McCabe, said they in no way wished to contribute to negative attitudes towards any part of the community. However in the same way that “UK Variant” has been used, “South African” variant is the term widely used by official sources. It is an easier way for people to understand the variant than B.

Stuff would continue to edit in a way that ensured the use of the term didn’t contribute to negative perceptions of South Africans or the country itself.

The Media Council can understand the concern this sort of labelling can have, especially if the origin of a new strain or disease is used gratuitously e.g when former-President Trump repeatedly described Covid as the Chinese virus to score political points. We also note that this particular strain was more properly referred to as the Wuhan strain.

However naming diseases after the first place they were identified has been a long-standing convention (eg the 1918 Spanish flu). It is unfortunate that such labelling can be used by some to abuse people or discriminate against them but the media have little choice about the use of identifiers of new strains when these titles have been assigned to them by medical authorities.

The meaning of “South African variant” is clear.It is the Covid variant that arose in South Africa. In the terms “South African variant” and “UK Variant” both South African and UK are being used as adjectives to refer to geographical locations, not the people inhabiting the countries. “South Africa variant” has the same meaning and impact as the term “South Africa variant”.

Finding: Insufficient Grounds to Proceed.


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