How will the language of Coronavirus shape how we rebuild society?

The language of COVID & building a fairer world

Words matter – the language we’re using to talk about the Coronavirus will shape the type of society we evolve into once the pandemic subsides.

At Health Poverty Action we’ve been working on how the dominant language used to describe poverty and inequality influences how we act to address these issues. COVID is now shaping not only how we talk about global health and inequality, but also what we value most in society. Surveys are showing that the pursuit of economic growth is falling out of favour, and there’s broad support for putting health and wellbeing at the forefront of how we build our society. With COVID driving forward these conversations, how is the dominant language that’s being used to talk about COVID and its effects influencing and framing our thoughts? How might this shape our future actions?

A famous study on how language shapes our beliefs tested people’s reactions to a piece of text describing crime using either a ‘virus’ or a ‘beast’ metaphor, and after asked participants what type of policies should be implemented to reduce crime. The study found that those who read the ‘crime as a virus’ narrative were more likely to suggest better education and healthcare to reduce crime, whilst those exposed to the ‘crime as beast’ narrative were more likely to favour measures that punished the individual and fuelled the ‘tough on crime’ approach. The virus metaphor makes us ‘zoom out’ and think about the structural and environmental causes of crime and is known as a thematic metaphor. The ‘beast’ metaphor, however, zooms us in, making us lean more towards individual blame and short-term approaches. This is known as an episodic frame.

Today, the ‘crime as a virus’ narrative has been turned on its head: we are now immersed in a narrative of ‘virus as a crime’. Our media talk of ‘Coronavirus invading the world’ and the need to ‘fight Coronavirus’. But the crime and war-like language used in this context is likely to make people more sympathetic to harsher police-enforcement measures to maintain the ‘lockdown’. The Public Interest Research Centre has said that these metaphors not only make us more willing to accept authoritarian power but are also associated with violence and a feeling that we need to be ‘protected’ from societies outside of our own. This risks an unnecessary – and potentially harmful- response to COVID-19, and may also be fuelling the increase in xenophobia and racism experienced by people from Asia in recent months.

As we discuss the threat that COVID-19 poses to at-risk and marginalised groups around the world, such as the people we work with, we must remember what additional risks we’re adding to the pile if we don’t acknowledge why these groups are more at-risk. We must ask ourselves, what are we normalising with the language we use in relation to the pandemic?

When we talk about how COVID is widening global inequality, we should make it clear that poverty isn’t inevitable, and that it’s a result of how the world’s resources have been distributed to favour certain groups of people over others. Instead of saying ‘people living in poverty need our help to tackle COVID’, we should say ‘people forced into poverty by an unfair system are at the greatest risk, but this is avoidable.’ Talking about the system that has created poverty brings us into a thematic frame of mind, where we’re willing to think big and make long-term changes. The Frame Works Institute also recommends invoking feelings of justice and fairness in our language by highlighting our collective responsibility to prevent avoidable deaths. This could stop people from feeling fatalistic and might make them more willing to take action.

It’s also important to watch the framing within the dominant ‘key workers are heroes’ narrative. Whilst it’s great that healthcare workers are being celebrated, if governments provided a safe working environment that has been properly funded, they wouldn’t need to put their lives on the line. Academics have called out the NHS hero narrative, which was quickly adopted by the Government.

Jennifer Mathers from Aberystwyth University and Veronica Kitchen from the University of Waterloo, wrote, “too much focus on NHS heroes’ risks leaving the public with the impression that the current situation was inevitable…This is a narrative that benefits political leaders by allowing them to deflect responsibility for their handling of the pandemic.”

too much focus on NHS heroes’ risks leaving the public with the impression that the current situation was inevitable

What’s more, by labelling them as heroes it comes with the expectation that public adoration and the resulting status is enough appreciation. We don’t see Superman asking for a pay-rise or better working conditions!

So how do we counter these damaging narratives? A critical first step would be to listen to the strong voices in the Global South who are calling for a fairer post-COVID world.

For example, a group of hundreds of intellectuals from African nations have written an open letter stating that; “It is essential to remember that Africa has sufficient material and human resources to build a shared prosperity on an egalitarian basis and in respect of the dignity of each and everyone. The dearth of political will and the extractive practices of external actors can no longer be used as an excuse for inaction. We no longer have a choice: we need a radical change in direction. Now is the time!”

It is essential to remember that Africa has sufficient material and human resources to build a shared prosperity

When China shipped face masks to Italy, a quote was printed on the boxes that said; “we are waves of the same sea, leaves of the same tree, flowers of the same garden.” This message of interconnectedness reminds us that we must protect one another in this pandemic. This duty shouldn’t be confined within our own borders or limited to only certain groups in society. The words we use can help to open the doors to building back a better, more equal world as we recover and rebuild from this pandemic.

We’re standing alongside some of the most remote, at-risk communities around the world so they have the tools to prevent the spread of COVID19 in their community. Join us by donating today to help build a fairer global Coronavirus response and create the more resilient world we all want to see.