How not to socially distance with words

31 July 2020

In times of crisis, we naturally seek comfort from others. When someone is ill, anxious or sad, we instinctively want to be near them, to squeeze their hand, give them a hug or have a chat over a cuppa. Yet as we don our masks and keep our physical distance to stop the spread of COVID-19, we have to find other ways to show we care. In times like these, words become increasingly important.

When we refer to people as things, they become dehumanised

When we are presented daily with the increasing number of COVID-19 infections and deaths, there is a danger of losing sight that these statistics are a loved one, a friend, a colleague, a parent or a child. If we say ‘The seven cases that had a positive COVID-19 test are self isolating at home’ we continue to think of  faceless numbers. Yet, if we say ‘Our seven colleagues who tested positive for COVID-19 are self isolating at home,’ suddenly they are real people. They are one of us and we are with them.

When we shoot from the hip, people get hurt

The NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and the NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard both announced in late June that anyone from one of Victoria's coronavirus hotspots was ‘not welcome’ in NSW. Of course, it’s vital that we contain the spread of the virus. Yet how much less divisive to use the more neutral, ‘Until the virus subsides, the borders into [state] will be closed to people travelling from COVID-19 hotspots.’

When a world leader pick, pick, picks, we become a society divided

US President Donald Trump is famous for deliberately misnaming COVID-19 using inflammatory names like the ‘Wuhan virus’, the ‘Chinese virus’ and even ‘Kung flu’.  The World Health Organization (WHO) coined the name COVID-19 to remove any association with the country that first identified the virus. None of us has the licence to use any other than this official, neutral term.

In a time when staying physically apart is essential for our very survival, we need to look for ways to bridge the growing divide. We need to find innovative ways to communicate. We need to smile over our masks with our eyes. And we need to always choose our words wisely.

Need help writing your COVID-19 communications? Contact Concise Writing Consultancy on 02 9238 6638 or email patricia.hoyle@concisewriting.com.au

Sources:

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jul/03/victorians-were-suddenly-pariahs-how-the-states-coronavirus-outbreak-divided-australia

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/20/trump-covid-19-kung-flu-racist-language

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