In the last couple of weeks, I’ve noticed a shift in the vocabulary used to describe the Covid-19 pandemic.
On 24 July, Health Secretary Sajid Javid was met with swift criticism after he tweeted (and later deleted) that people should “learn to live with, rather than cower from, this virus.”
News outlets have also begun reporting on the “pingdemic” and its effect on the economy and daily life in the UK.
This change in the way we discuss Covid-19, to me, reflects the wider change in the approach that we’ve taken to confronting coronavirus as a society. Words referencing safety and protection are starting to take a backseat in debates about and coverage of the virus. Remember when “protect the NHS” was on Boris Johnson’s podium?
Overall, as time has gone on, the framing of stopping the spread of the pandemic has gone from being a collective mission to protect key workers and those who are vulnerable, to a question of personal responsibility and weighing up what works for you as an individual.
But is this a useful way to think about it? If anything, Covid-19 has illustrated how dependent we are on each other – one person’s preventative measures can only do so much if other people aren’t following them.
Language that emphasises individualism and the values associated with it implies that efforts to control the virus is a question of individual courage. It relegates our interdependence to the background, masking the importance of collective efforts.
I worry that framing the pandemic in these terms may discourage us to think of others when making decisions about preventing the spread of the virus. No one wants to be a coward – but when caution is in order, courage can quickly tip over into recklessness.
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It’s easy to dismiss other people’s reluctance to return to normalcy as “cowering” if you’re not at any increased risk, but many people who haven’t been fully vaccinated, or are clinically vulnerable, still are.
Add to this the sudden popularity of the term “pingdemic”. As more businesses have reopened and people mix at greater rates, record numbers of people are being notified by the Covid-19 app that they should self-isolate. This has, of course, included much of the work force, leaving many businesses having to reduce their hours or even close as large proportions of their employees need to self-isolate.
However, using the word “pingdemic” tends to obscure what is really happening: we are still living through a global pandemic, despite Downing Street’s best efforts to act like Covid-19 has gone away.
Calling it a “pingdemic” implies that it’s the app to blame for the increase in potential contacts, and not the fact that, as people mix more regularly, the rates of Covid-19 are likely to increase. Instead of thinking of the pandemic as a serious event, we are encouraged to dismiss the increased spread of Covid-19 as fearmongering via our phones and imperfect technology.
This is not to say that we should not criticise the Covid-19 app (my experience with it has been fairly glitchy), or that we should all lock down forever.
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What I want to do is question how our attitudes to Covid-19 are changing, and what role our language is playing in this. The change in the words used to cover the pandemic makes it seem like we are nearing the end, but for many, this is far from the reality.
Not only are young people and those who are clinically vulnerable still at increased risk from Covid-19, many countries have not been able to vaccinate as much of their population as the UK has so far.
Covid-19 is not over, and we should take care that the words we use don’t frame it as though it is.