Clarity about coronavirus terms could save lives

Another new disease, another slew of terminology for media workers to get our heads around. Yet it is so crucial we do, not just for the sake of clarity and accuracy, but also to save lives.

Unfortunately, scientists do not name viruses and diseases with snappy headlines in mind. Novel coronavirus – or SARS-CoV-2 to give it its official title – and Covid-19, the illness the virus can cause, are no exceptions. But using the terms correctly matters, just as it has in previous pandemics.

HIV (the human immuno-deficiency virus) is the virus that causes AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome), the latter being an unpleasant collection of diseases (TB, pneumonia, certain cancers and a whole lot else) that combine to bring about a slow, painful and often undignified death.

It was the gruesome and scary disease (AIDS) that grabbed the headlines in the early days of that outbreak, causing widespread fear and panic, particularly as – at the time – more than half of those who tested positive for HIV died soon afterwards.

The sensational qualities of the disease prompted equally sensational media coverage distracted us from how it was possible to avoid contracting HIV in the first place, as well as the gradual realisation that you could live with HIV for a long time without developing AIDS, even before treatment was available.

I have had HIV for 30 years, but I have yet to develop AIDS (he says touching every piece of wood within reach). But I knew people who died soon after their diagnosis because they equated the virus with the disease; they did not see the possibilities for prolonging their lives that understanding the difference between HIV and AIDS presented.

The high death-rate that haunted the public’s awakening to AIDS reflected the fact that, early on, most people tested for HIV only once they had fallen ill with AIDS; a situation not dissimilar to the one in many countries now with novel coronavirus and Covid-19.

First impressions stick, and these are often created by media coverage that stokes hysteria. The lingering fear of AIDS contributed to a lot of unnecessary infections and deaths because people were too afraid to get tested for HIV and to take preventative action. The media’s inconsistent, interchangeable and thereby confusing use of HIV and AIDS did not help.

Therefore, distinguishing between novel coronavirus and Covid-19 is important, especially in these early days of the pandemic when there is a lot of understandable fear and uncertainty. There are ways of preventing the spread of novel coronavirus. And although Covid-19 has been fatal for some, most of those who have had the disease have recovered. Some may not have known they were infected with novel coronavirus in the first place.

This makes containment difficult, particularly as novel coronavirus – like other coronaviruses – is transmitted relatively easily. Hence the unprecedented measures being taken to limit its spread, not least because our health care systems may not cope with the surge of people who require or could require treatment for Covid-19, even if this is a minority of those infected with novel coronavirus.

Why our healthcare systems may not cope is a story for after the lockdowns. For now, it is the possible fatality of Covid-19 that frightens most of us, no matter how small that possibility is.

Thankfully, we already know a lot more about novel coronavirus and Covid-19 than we knew in the early days of HIV and AIDS. Understanding and clearly communicating what we are dealing with and how best to deal with it stems from us having clarity about the differences in terminology and using it in an accurate, factual and unsensational way.

In an effort to make our own coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic as accurate, factual and unsensational as possible, IMS has put together in-house style and reporting guides that you can view and download here. If you see any inaccuracies in these documents or this article, please contact the author on

David Lush is IMS’ Senior Advisor for Organisational Learning