When I first heard about COVID-19, my wife and I were at a writers’ conference in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. It was February 11, 2020, and we were talking to a friend of Chinese descent who had just flown in from New York City. She told us she’d been nervous about crossing the border because during the SARS epidemic of 2002, she and other Asian travellers had been forced into quarantine and subjected to abuse after the outbreak was first identified in China’s most populous province, Guangdong. She was afraid of experiencing the same kind of racist backlash this time.
February 11 was, coincidentally, the day the World Health Organization decreed that the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2 was to be called COVID-19 — a designation intended to avoid association with a specific geographical location, group of people, or animal species. Nonetheless, after Donald Trump insisted on referring to it as “the Chinese virus” and even “Kung flu,” our friend’s fears were realized. Across the United States, people of Asian descent became targets of violent attacks. Susan Sontag was right when she said, in Illness as Metaphor, that “the very names” of some diseases “are felt to have a magic power.” That certainly has held true for COVID.
I began to collect words used to describe this novel illness and how it was changing our lives. What we do, I believe, depends to a great extent on how we talk about what we do. Before long, I had assembled a lexicon of the pandemic, with each term or phrase inspiring a brief essay. Taken together, the entries constitute a history of our collective experience.
In order to allay our fears about a pathogen that has killed at least 15 million people, we adjusted our language. On social media we spoke euphemistically of the panda bear, panini bread, Miss Rona, and Pandemi Moore. We shared recipes for making “quarantinis,” a fun-sounding activity that masks the fact that, during lockdowns, alcohol consumption shot up to alarming heights. And we borrowed concepts from more benign spheres of activity. A “rollout,” originally what one did with a red carpet during a papal visit, became the distribution of vaccines. “Uptick,” a stock market coinage denoting a small increase in the price of a share, was co-opted to refer to a rise in infections, hospitalizations, or even fatalities. Another thousand people have died? Just an uptick, nothing to worry about.
Many of the expressions we invented or adapted have persisted even after the worst waves. The name of that Greek letter, omicron, still makes us shudder, and many people now know what a spike protein does. In 2020, the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary added “Covid-19,” “lockdown,” “WFH,” and “support bubble” to their digital and physical pages, and in 2021 they chose “vax” as the word of the year.
Just as some of those linguistic adjustments stick around, so too do the changes we made to our lives. For many, the pandemic has marked a passage out of innocence and exposed pre-existing flaws in our health care systems and political leaders. We came up with the compound “vaccine apartheid,” for instance, to refer to the inequitable distribution of doses. Our social relationships, too, have evolved, and cautious singles now add COVID-related qualifications to their dating-app profiles. Friends ask each other, “Do you mind if I take off my mask?” And parents live with the consequences of having been forced to make a Sophie’s choice about which children to include in their “bubble.”
My notebooks grew to manuscript length. I revised them daily as new variants created new waves and more words. Whenever I thought we were pulling out of the pandemic, we were hit with another spike in cases. And here we are, three years in and counting, as “Kraken” takes on a new meaning. Thirty-six months is a long time to live with trauma. Even though the hardest periods — when India recorded 400,000 cases a day, or when seniors in Montreal were abandoned in their long-term-care facilities — are fading from our memories, the ways of speaking they engendered continue to echo our distress.
Years from now, when we find a crumpled face mask in a jacket pocket or spot the faint trace of footprints painted on a pharmacy floor or talk to someone who is still working from home, we will think, “Oh yes, that was COVID.” And perhaps then we’ll decide not to go into a crowded restaurant.