The Vocabulary of Crisis: How COVID-19 Has Changed Our Language
By Gina Rubel and Sarah Larson
The pandemic of COVID-19 caused by the novel coronavirus that is sweeping the globe has changed our lives dramatically. While hospitals across the country and around the world doggedly try to save lives, entire companies are being run from their employees’ homes, school children and college students are trying to take courses online, and essential workers are keeping the grocery stores and healthcare services going.
Plus, we all spend a lot of time talking about toilet paper, or the lack thereof.
These new conversations have sparked new language. New words and phrases have been coined and existing words that once were used only in certain industries and niches are now part of our daily mainstream conversations. What do they all mean? Here’s a primer.
CORONAVIRUS AND COVID-19
The term coronavirus refers to a large family of viruses that infect birds and mammals, including humans. They are named for the spikes on their surfaces, which resemble the points on a crown – “corona” is Latin for “crown.” Several coronaviruses infect humans. First identified in the mid 1960s, human coronaviruses typically cause respiratory disease with symptoms of the common cold.
Occasionally, a coronavirus that previously lived in animals can make the jump to infecting humans. This is called a “novel,” or new, coronavirus. This is known to have happened three times:
- in 2003, with SARS-CoV, the coronavirus that causes Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS
- in 2012, with MERS-CoV, the coronavirus that causes Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS
- in 2020, with the newly identified SARS-CoV2, the coronavirus that causes coronavirus disease 2019, or COVID-19
COVID-19 is the name of the respiratory disease caused by SARS-CoV2, the newly discovered coronavirus. The World Health Organization notes that diseases are named to enable “discussion on disease prevention, spread, transmissibility, severity and treatment.” Diseases are officially named by WHO and listed in the International Classification of Diseases. (Viruses, meanwhile, are named by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses, based on “their genetic structure to facilitate the development of diagnostic tests, vaccines and medicines.”)
Several words are used to describe the level of disease in a community. Once the province of doctors who study infectious disease, these words are now part of our everyday lives.
- A disease that is commonly and continuously observed in a community at a baseline level is endemic.
- An epidemic is a sudden increase above the expected level of a given disease in a particular area.
- A pandemic is an epidemic that has spread to a large number of people over several countries or continents. This is what we are experiencing with COVID-19.
When a disease breaks out, public health investigators need to identify who might have been exposed to it. They interview infectious people to determine the other people they may have come into contact with through their daily travel and activities. This is called Contact Tracing.
A Super Spreader is a person who infects a large number of other people with a disease. “Typhoid Mary,” for example, was the nickname for Mary Mallon, an Irish immigrant who worked as a cook for several families in New York in 1906. Though apparently healthy herself, she spread the bacterium that causes typhoid fever to at least 120 people. In the New York City suburb of New Rochelle in March 2020, more than 50 people were infected with the novel coronavirus by one man, a 50-year-old attorney.
Leaders worldwide have taken extraordinary measures to try to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. All the measures have been aimed at limiting human contact, since that is the way the infection spreads. The measures include:
Social Distancing, also called Physical Distancing, means to maintain space between yourself and other people. As of early April, the official guidelines have recommended at least a 6-foot gap, believed to be the amount of distance that a sneeze or cough can propel respiratory droplets that might transmit the virus.
Quarantine keeps people who may have been exposed to the novel coronavirus away from others. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that “someone in self-quarantine stays separated from others, and they limit movement outside of their home or current place. A person may have been exposed to the virus without knowing it (for example, when traveling or out in the community), or they could have the virus without feeling symptoms. Quarantine helps limit further spread of COVID-19.”
Isolation means to separate sick people from healthy people. “People who are in isolation should stay home. In the home, anyone sick should separate themselves from others by staying in a specific ‘sick’ bedroom or space and using a different bathroom,” if possible.
To reduce face-to-face interaction, many state governors have issued Stay-at-Home orders. While the specifics of what that means varies from state to state, the general aim is, unsurprisingly, to urge people to remain in their own homes and refrain from going out in public or from gathering in groups.
PPE, or Personal Protective Equipment, is protective clothing or equipment such as gloves, face shields, goggles, facemasks, and respirators designed to protect people from contracting the virus.
N95 refers to an N95 Filtering Facepiece Respirator (FFR), a type of respirator which filters out at least 95 percent of very small (0.3 micron) particles. N95 FFRs are capable of filtering out bacteria and viruses and are an important weapon in the fight against COVID-19.
In the midst of this historic pandemic, many businesses have been forced to close or change the way they work. Restaurants that no longer can seat diners inside are offering curbside pickup for takeout orders, while pizza places are offering to-go kits with dough, sauce, cheese and toppings.
Many businesses have instructed most of their employees to work remotely. As a result, tech tools such as the video conferencing software Zoom and the instant messaging platform Slack are seeing huge rates of new adoption. Teachers are using a variety of online platforms to deliver distance learning from Zoom to Teams and other more customized programs.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government has enacted two new laws to try to mitigate the damage to the economy inflicted by the pandemic. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) provides funding for free coronavirus testing, 14-day paid leave for U.S. workers affected by the pandemic, and increased funding for food assistance programs. The $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act includes direct payments of $1,200 to many Americans and billions in loans to try to keep the country’s small businesses afloat.
For other business resources from Furia Rubel, check out:
Evaluate Your Online Reputation and Reviews While Physically Distancing
6 Community Support Ideas for Emotional Health
Assessing Public Relations, Social Media and Marketing During a Pandemic
How to Prepare for Coronavirus to Hit the Small Business Owner
For more coronavirus resources, please visit our Coronavirus (COVID-19) Crisis & PR Resource Center.