Coronavirus calls for sensible language

Transforming diseases into foes and therapies into battles isn't the best way to face contagion, writes Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington Professor of Health Annemarie Jutel.

Public anxiety and nations’ responses to coronavirus (COVID-19) have been shaped by the hyperbolic metaphors surrounding its discussion. Even the usually sedate and measured tones of Radio New Zealand are shrill on this subject, as they alert us to a “deadly virus”.

While many diseases may end in death, including those we contract every year in every neighbourhood, they are not all – and probably shouldn’t be – referred to as “killers”. The prevalence of this characterisation in the popular media is impressive. The Sun, MSN, Daily Mail, Bloomberg, The Mirror, BBC and the Arab News (but not the Guardian: 'Coronavirus: be alert, not afraid') as a small sample all refer to the “killer virus”.

How we talk about diseases and how we name them has a strong social impact. The World Health Organization (WHO) knows this. One action WHO has taken since the H1N1 'Swine' flu is to avoid naming novel diseases after places, animals, people’s names, ethnic groups and so on. The WHO wrote:

The best practices state that a disease name should consist of generic descriptive terms, based on the symptoms that the disease causes (e.g. respiratory disease, neurologic syndrome) and more specific descriptive terms when robust information is available on how the disease manifests, who it affects, its severity or seasonality (e.g. progressive, juvenile, severe, winter). If the pathogen that causes the disease is known, it should be part of the disease name (e.g. coronavirus, influenza virus, salmonella).

But the WHO doesn’t give guidance on metaphors. It is “lockdown” in Wuhan as the coronavirus “kills” people and China “battles” a novel virus. These are strong metaphors to describe a viral infection. Their strength may be a call to action ... or to panic.

How else could we report a viral “outbreak” (also a metaphor, it must be said)? Well, people could “succumb” rather than be “killed”. This would signify something slightly different: a weakness of the individual rather than the strength of the virus.

If we changed the metaphors, what would the impact be on the public response to the virus? For example, to say “Officials in Wuhan restrict travel of its residents to reduce chances of contagion” sets a very different tone than to say, as the Guardian (didn’t it say it was going to be calm?) did on January 24:

China has expanded an unprecedented lockdown during the country’s most important holiday to 13 cities and at least 36 million people, as efforts to contain the deadly new coronavirus were stepped up around the world and the first cases were reported in Europe.

Writer Susan Sontag, in her book Illness as Metaphor, revealed how metaphors can be helpful or unhelpful to individuals diagnosed with particular diseases. Transforming diseases into foes and therapies into battles isn’t the best way to face contagion. Since when did panic and catastrophe help anyone organise anything?

We should talk about health and disease, no matter what the condition, using precise and unambiguous language. Remember, a metaphor is a figure of speech that is not literal; what is being spoken about is figurative and representative, rather than the thing itself.

Let’s start talking about the thing itself: it’s a moderately contagious virus with almost no impact in some people. Some people have died, however, and so precautions are in order.

Measured and sensible discussions and approaches are far more likely to sort things out to everyone’s benefit.

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