COVID-19, Current Issue

The Interplay of Words and Politics During COVID-19: Locally Contextualizing the Universal Pandemic Vocabulary

From Inayat Ali and Robbie Davis-Floyd:

Whenever a challenging situation emerges, an ambiguous, robust and thought-provoking vocabulary also surfaces. Sometimes, entirely new words are introduced, such as “coronavirus” and “COVID-19”; at other times, the terminology existing in what Ali calls the “societal memory” is sufficient to make sense of that extraordinary event, and problems arise when the local vocabulary is ignored in favor of new terms derived from other languages, especially English. Terms and words shape our interpretations of our experiences and influence our actions. They also affect our understandings of warning signs that can lead us to take the necessary protective measures or to steer us away from adopting such measures.
Emphasizing the impacts of the words surrounding the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, we
demonstrate the ongoing interplay among words, policies, and politics: How is the vocabulary that has emerged around the pandemic shaping our interpretations and experiences of it? In our article, we build on Ali’s ethnographic fieldwork on health and illness in Pakistan and his comprehension of local dynamics of power, and Davis-Floyd’s anthropological understandings of the power of language.
There are two main arguments in our article. (1) Using military vocabulary, e.g., “curfew,” and “war,” “lockdown” and “smart lockdown”—a term created in Pakistan—generates a sense of great “danger” and facilitates governments to galvanize people to fight this “war” and to employ the actual army in this endeavor. In the name of the virus, governments and organizations rationalize and enforce “stringent” measures at local, national and international levels. These words can also allow them to mask any bad governance that intensifies the (after-) effects of any challenge for a specific population, given that they are fighting a “war” against an “invisible enemy.”

Figure-1 The German description of this mask in Vienna, Austria, reads  “Everything will be all right!” Photo by Inayat Ali

Many countries colonized by the British—in which English is not a primary language—import English words and sometimes paraphrase them. For instance, two terms created by the national government have become much used in Pakistan: “smart lockdown” and Quarantinā (lit. quarantine). These “invented” or paraphrased words blur local understandings not only about the virus but also about governmental policies. Local people often can neither understand them nor pronounce them, so they often fail to take appropriate action.(2) Our second argument draws on the first, noting that using fully understood local vocabulary, such as “Chilo/ā” instead of Quarantinā in Pakistan, would have significantly helped people to make sense of COVID-19 and to take preventive action. While the meaning of Quarantinā  is not locally understood, the local term “Chilo/ā” has a clear and robust meaning and a known set of actions attached to it, such as placing a woman delivering a baby in a special room to keep her safe and give her privacy, or quarantining children infected by measles, who must be specially and ritually treated to help them recover and to keep others from catching the disease. Culturally recognized symbols such as a piece of red cloth attached to a door indicate “danger” and that the child in the room is to be isolated from all but their caregivers. The banner shown below indicates that a vaccination program is underway in that area.

Figure -2 The red & white banner indicates a house where measles vaccination is underway in Sindh, Pakistan. Photo by Inayat Ali

Undoubtedly, every country needs to devise context-specific plans. Yet we strongly suggest that international and government agencies should use local terminologies as well as those words that reflect real human needs—such as “physical distancing” instead of  “social distancing.” People can accept having to stay six feet apart—physical distancing—yet they do not wish to be kept socially distanced from their friends and families.

Figure -3 Distinct Quantification of Physical Distancing in Vienna, Austria. Photos by Inayat Ali

Our article invites others to conduct detailed qualitative studies to investigate and analyze the language used around COVID-19 and its substantial implications at various levels. Such studies should also suggest a human-centered vocabulary that would be most effective in dealing with outbreaks, epidemics and pandemics. These inquiries could work as guides for governments and healthcare officials during challenging situations. 

Look out for Ali’s full article and the rest of the Fall Issue coming out October 1, 2020.

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