Use the right words to show the seriousness of COVID-19

The conversation about this disease is being hijacked and politicized to put less emphasis on immediate risk to human life.

COVID-19 is, of course, something everyone is talking about, but I am not sure that we are paying enough attention to the words that are being used to talk about it.

Photo by Victor He on Unsplash

The narrative right now in a lot of countries is being dominated by word choices that serve very specific agendas, and many of them are not ones that have the best interests of the average citizen at their core. Instead of presenting dangers in a straightforward way, this language uses euphemisms to hide the dangers and obscure the facts.

I’ll give you an example. Lately, I hear a lot of people talking about “opening up the economy.” This is a loaded phrase. “The economy” is treated as a monolith, and it is either open or it is closed. When it is closed, this conjures up negative connotations because being closed is generally a bad thing for economies. When you go to the store and it is closed, it means you can’t use the store. This does not immediately call to attention that the person who opens the store could die.

There is still an economy right now. It is ailing, but it is not “closed.” Things are being bought and sold. Food is showing up in stores each day. Real people are risking their lives to make this happen.

What is really meant by this phrase is “making more money by removing disease-control measures.” Right now we have one weapon in the fight against COVID-19, and that weapon is social engineering. Medicine cannot save society from this, and all of us in or adjacent to the medical profession know it. Science may eventually give medicine the tools to save us, but not yet. Not even close.

So, being in a lockdown, we have not “closed” the economy. We have “taken necessary disease control measures.” And the opposite of that is not “opening” the economy, it is “removing disease control measures.” When phrased this way, it becomes obvious that this is only something that we can do when we have actually controlled the disease.

Looking at The Discourse on COVID-19 through my own limited perspective, I see a lot of phrases that are trotted out, like this example, and that load the conversation for one outcome before it starts. I think it’s important to walk through these and think of some alternatives that shed a different light on the situation.

I’ve built a short list below, and I’m interested to hear suggestions that others might have. Some of these reframe common phrases, others translate them in a way that puts the consequences and goals of swift action at the forefront instead of hiding them behind jargon. Here’s the list:

  • “opening the economy” → “removing disease control measures”
  • “essential workers” → “workers who risk their lives to allow us to fulfill basic needs”
  • “fleeing the virus” → “taking the virus with you to somewhere new”
  • “early reports” → “unreliable speculation”
  • “fire Fauci” → “please, God, I am terrified, I am so scared, please make this go away and allow me to pretend it never happened, I don’t want to die of something so random and incomprehensible”
  • “PPE” → “necessary equipment to save workers’ lives”
  • “flattening the curve” → “keeping the rate of sickness and death below the level that will destroy our healthcare system and economy”
  • “getting back to normal” → “risking lives without recognizing the situation”
  • “the most vulnerable” → “the virus can kill you, but there are people who it will kill even more of”

I recognize that there is a spin to each of alternatives I’m giving here. The point is that there is also a spin to each of the original phrases. We live in a time where the fundamentals of human society are being challenged by something that we have tools to fight, but only if we recognize the risks involved.

Our world has changed and we need to reframe our thinking to recognize that change. Normal is gone, and to try to bring it back without any changes is to live in denial. We must be honest with ourselves, and find new ways of thinking about the way forward.

Virologist, author, damn fool. Also found at and Opinions my own, impressions yours.

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