Annemarie Jutel, TEU member and Professor of Health at Te Herenga Waka | Victoria University of Wellington calls for a measured response to coronavirus from leaders within the Tertiary Education Sector, and a shift away from exaggerated and stigmatising language in describing the virus and its impact.
Public anxiety and nations’ responses to coronavirus (COVID-19) have been shaped by the hyperbolic metaphors surrounding its discussion. As union members, academics, and leaders within the tertiary education sector, it’s important that we are measured and thoughtful in our communications and advocacy, that we don’t contribute to increasing fears of the virus itself, and to the further isolation and stigmatising of affected communities.
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”.
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.
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?
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.
As leaders within the tertiary education sector continue to engage with government and public sector officials, and our institutions, staff, students and their communities continue to be impacted by the ongoing - and likely ineffective travel ban - it’s important that we are all conscious of language and responses that further exclude those affected.
Measured and sensible discussions and approaches are far more likely to sort things out to everyone’s benefit.
A version of this story originally appeared in newsroom.