Pandemic 2020: Language of Fear

But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. – George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

2020 has, to put it mildly, been one of chaos and crisis. The Wuhan coronavirus (COVID-19) hit the world harder than we’ve ever experienced, and suddenly, we had a whole new reality. And there is a lot of talking going on to which more people are exposed than ever before. Those in lockdown are glued to television, radio, Internet, and frequently all three simultaneously.

I wrote about the so-called “essential services,” a term being used entirely inaccurately.

Language has changed our perceptions lately. In January, a friend was one of the unfortunate Canadians stuck on the stranded cruise ship outside of California.

Her Facebook page was filled with good wishes, most of them advising her to “stay positive!”

I said not to stay positive. Stay negative. But stay upbeat.

By that time, all we were hearing was of people testing positive for the coronavirus. I was already hyper-aware of the choice of words people make.

In a recent exchange of voice texts on Whatsapp with a friend, I said, “stay safe.”

His next words influence this piece.

“That is not a good way to end a message, Lissa. I hear this now, all the time. ’Stay safe,’ or in stores, ‘be well,’ and that kind of thing. I think that just spreads the panic. Subconsciously, just spreads the panic that we’re not safe. So I’m not using that anymore. Funny, I just decided that about a half hour ago. I was in a store and someone said, ‘stay safe,’ and I thought, there’s a 0.1% chance of me dying from this thing. I could get hit by an asteroid. So I’m refraining from that from now on.”

His having pointed that out to me opened my eyes. He’s right. We’ve adopted a whole new glossary in only a couple of short months (that seem longer), so I’d like to bring this to the fore.

Disclaimer: while I am not, in any way, denying the brutal results of this virus, I am of the mind that it is time to reopen the world. That is a piece for another day, but I believe – as my wise friend does – much of the panic is perpetuated by the words and phrases we hear constantly. We’re getting the language and terms from government officials, including medical experts, but it’s spread across the realm of social media, and into our everyday vernacular. And it affects people emotionally even if they are unaware that it has.

There are pieces found all across the Internet, with the words being used by officials in every city, globally, as they update us on the situation. “Language of a pandemic: A glossary of commonly used words and phrases related to COVID-19,” (The Telegram, April 14, 2020) is a list of terms, from “case cluster,” “contact tracing,” and “confirmed positive vs. presumptive positive” to “host cell,” “incubation period,” and “intensive care.” Each is explained, in a paragraph.

“Coronavirus glossary: Your guide to the language of a pandemic,” (, March 16, 2020) provides more clinical terms, from “PUI” (Person Under Investigation) and “Reagent,” to delineating the difference between “quarantine” and “self-isolation.”

I’m sure there are more.

The need for these articles is immediate; we are being inundated with new words and terms that are foreign to us, frightening to many, and fraught with the need for answers beyond the simple words themselves.

But we’re also throwing terms around that are rife with fear. Here are some that I have noticed. This list is in no way exhaustive, nor is it in any sort of order. I would welcome terms you might have heard that hold the same weight of worry.

”Stay safe”

When did we ever say “stay safe” other than when loved ones have embarked on long-distance adventures? Even then, I cannot recall ever having said anything more than, “have a safe trip.”

By habit, we ask our loved ones to “drive safely,” or “go carefully.” It’s been said to me countless times, as I have said it too. We don’t say that to invoke fear of the opposite. We say it because by doing so, we parlay how much we care about the other person, and as a bit of asking whatever Powers in which we believe to keep our loved one safe.

But in thinking about this piece, I have reflected, and have never said “stay safe” as often as I did (before it was pointed out to me).

Proud to say, I found myself in a pharmacy yesterday, and ended my interaction with the cashier with a cheery, “have a great day!”

(It should be noted that behind her no-contact plexiglass booth, she was wearing gloves, a mask over her mouth and nose, AND sported a hair-to-chin plastic shield; if that isn’t nonverbally fear-inducing, what is?)

“second wave“

We hear talk of the “second wave.” This refers to the re-emergence of virus cases after the proverbial curve has been flattened.

(Another example – that flattening of the curve; by now, you’re probably saturated with the term, but it refers to lowering the initial spike of cases so that healthcare workers and hospitals are not overwhelmed to the point of ineffectiveness)

We never heard “second wave” before this pandemic, did we? Perhaps epidemiologists did, but the everyday citizen was blissfully ignorant of the anatomy of a pandemic prior to January 2020.

The second wave has been ominously foreshadowed by experts (and by “experts” I am referring to everyone from the task forces giving daily updates to the armchair experts on Facebook).

We are admonished not to rush back into normal life. We are told that if we don’t keep our ”social distancing” practices ongoing, we will be hit with the “second wave which will be much worse (the armchair epidemiologists referenced above).

When we think of waves, we think of an angry ocean. The fact of the matter is that nobody knows what form this second wave will take. It is known that with any virus, herd immunity (another term, referring to the presence of antibodies in humans which should ostensibly prevent recurrences, or severe infections from taking hold) is the key.

Herd immunity is obtained either through vaccines (which can take up to 2 years to properly be tested), or prior infection. Examples include the polio vaccine which has virtually prevented the disease from being contracted, or chicken pox which now has a vaccine but which was contracted by most people in childhood (before the vaccine). People who have had chicken pox generally don’t get it again.

(You’ll say, “but shingles!” I acknowledge that but there’s a vaccine for it now as well)

The second wave will happen. It is an inevitability. And the longer these lockdowns continue, the more frightened people are of Venturing Out. The longer we go on in isolation, the more people will be affected in that second wave.

I have seen many people – those I know quite well, and those I do not – express a fear of catching the virus in the second wave. This term has taken on a life of its own.

“Self-Isolation,” ”Quarantine,” ”Lockdown,” ”Shelter at home“

It began with “self-isolation,” migrated to “quarantine” (which is inaccurate; sick/potentially exposed people are quarantined, not healthy people), and is now either lockdown or “shelter at home.”

People who are immuno-compromised are, with very good reason, frightened of getting this virus. We know it can be deadly to those without the ability to fight it off. We know it affects seniors at a disproportionate rate. We know those with pre-existing conditions, already vulnerable, can also be hit hard. We know that sometimes there is no rhyme or reason to whom and how severely this virus hits.

I am 100% in favor of those people who are at risk staying sheltered. Some of them are loved ones in my life, and of course should stay protected.

I am not in favor of mandating that the majority of any population should remain in their homes, locked behind closed doors, many of them restricted, unproductive, lonely, possibly in danger of abuse in their homes. Using charged terms like “lockdown” and “quarantine” only exacerbates the atmosphere of fear. (AtmosFear?)

The “new normal”

We don’t know when, but eventually people will leave their homes, return to their jobs (if they are lucky enough to have a job or a business that has not closed due to the global economy screeching to an unceremonious stop), return to their friends and leisure activities. We will eat in restaurants again. We will see movies on screens larger than our living room wall. We will once again cheer on our favorite sports team.

This is all being cautioned, because other than Sweden, no other country has breached the divide between “lockdown” and “life.”

So we are being told we will return to “a new normal.”

Granted, things will have to change; until there is more data, some measures may need to remain in place. And I would have no problem with those measures being made permanent. Hand sanitizer has been available for some time, in my local grocery store, for shoppers who opt to disinfect the handles of their shopping carts. I always availed myself of it, and believe it should be mandatory.

I believe the plexiglass dividers we’re seeing between cashiers and customers should also remain. As someone whose early work experience includes having worked a cash register, I can attest to the merits of these dividers.

But the words “new normal” implies we will all be emerging from some dark cave into a pseudo-post-apocalyptic way of life in a world unrecognizable to us. That should not be the case, nor do I believe it will be. The term is definitely one I would like to see retired. Soon.

“Social distancing?”

From the beginning of this chapter in our lives, I took exception to the term “social distancing.” As somebody who has cherished friends I’ve not yet met, precious friends and family I don’t see often, and connections I value on a regular basis – all due to technology bringing people together – I don’t believe I am practicing social distancing.

In fact, I would shock people when this all cropped up. I would say, “No, I refuse to socially distance.”

It’s physical distancing we should be practicing. Technology brought us together – six households, six different menus, six tables – in a Passover Seder that was lively, fun, different, and as social as it ever was in person.

While “social distancing” doesn’t fit with the language of fear, per se, it does invoke a picture of antisocial behavior. Given the far reaches of technology, and the longevity of that phenomenon, we do not need to be antisocial in order to avoid being infected.

reports of severe symptoms

The average person who is healthy will be exposed, may contract, and will recover from this coronavirus. Contrary to the fear being spread by pro-lockdowners, this virus is not going away. It will manifest differently in individuals. In that sense, it is no different from any flu, cold, or infection we’ve seen to date. There are similarities but not everyone will experience every symptom. Some, according to WebMD, may only experience what seems like a bad cold.

However, we seem to be hearing about only the most severe cases. The terrifying symptoms (which, in the spirit of shedding light on eradicating the language of fear, I will not list). This is only spreading panic: “I’m going to get it and I’m going to experience (list of severe symptoms), and I’m gonna DIE!”

It isn’t cold or callous of me to say yes, that will happen to some. It is just a fact. But we cannot live in fear. I believe the stories of those who have recovered, and those for whom it was a mild case are just as important for our collective morale. Perhaps even more so.

“we have to save lives”

More fear: “we have to keep the lockdown in place, because it saves lives. Even if it saves one life.” This has been used too many times to stress the need to keep the world locked up down indefinitely until the (as-yet spectre) vaccine is available for wide use.

Again, this is perpetrated mostly by those who believe that by hiding in our homes, we are going to avoid the virus completely, which will be gone by the time we are told it’s safe to come out. And that everyone has to do their part because my staying in keeps everyone else safe.

It’s had the desired effect. The Internet experts are judging, excoriating, and bullying those who believe a return to work is mandatory.

“I have no immune system! If you go out, I could die!”

That’s just the uninformed trying to guilt others. It’s the equivalent of every mother saying, “I’m cold. Go put on a sweater.”

The brutal, and tragic fact is that people will get sick. People will die. I pray it is not someone I know, love, or call “friend.” I pray it is not someone you know, love, or call “friend.”

But my staying home won’t affect anyone but me. If I do get exposed to the virus (despite every precaution I diligently take), I am not going to infect someone I know is in the at-risk category. I have not seen my dad, in his 80s, for months. As hard as that is, it is for his own good.

If I get exposed, I expose my family, true. But we know that more people recover than not. And because I live in a household that has needs, going out is necessary. Do I take precautions? You bet. As does every member of my household who goes out.

Mitigation is what is key. Washing hands frequently (when did we not wash our hands?), avoiding touching surfaces when we’re out, or using hand sanitizer if we do, any of the myriad PPE we are being told may help protect us as personal reminders not to touch our face when out, or other precautions being taken by establishments will be the answer to limiting the spread.


We are inundated, daily, by numbers, statistics, charts, graphs, lists – each one containing words like “deaths” and “new cases.” Not just on the news, but people posting the constant deluge of statistics – sans context – via their social media accounts.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t pay attention to the daily numbers. It does none of us any good to put statistics under a microscope with no context. What’s important – and not being provided – is to know who is being affected by the virus. Ages, underlying health conditions, living environment.

For example, we are finding out that a grossly disproportionate number of deaths are occurring in nursing homes and seniors residences. We are not getting that type of narrative information regularly. But it is crucial information to know.

Just being told there are X amount of new infection cases, and Y amount of new deaths, every 24 hours, is as meaningless as “4 out of 5 dentists recommend this gum.”

But because we are being flooded with numbers, and because most people are home doing nothing more than watching the news 24/7, scouring the Internet for mention of their city, state, province before panic-posting what they’ve read, those disembodied numbers are raising more fear than not.


According to Orwell’s Ministry of Truth, Ignorance is Strength.

I prefer to hold with the words commonly attributed to Sir Francis Bacon: Knowledge is Power.

The more we know, the more we can be in control of our own thoughts, actions, and ultimately our destiny.

Capitulating to the language of fear can only perpetuate panic.

There’s enough fear in this world. Let’s spread knowledge and not panic.

Words matter.

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