Coronavirus language in the news

Director of Studies at Kings London, Danny Carroll, explores some of the words and phrases that have featured most frequently in the news during the Coronavirus pandemic.

For over a year now, the media has, understandably, been full of stories about the global pandemic. These stories have often included words and phrases which are new to some people and unfamiliar to most. We have been told that some people remain ‘asymptomatic’, that ‘social distancing’ will help ‘flatten the curve’ and that rather than aiming for ‘herd immunity’ we should focus on ‘mass immunisation’, but what does all this mean?

In order to stay as informed as possible, it’s particularly important that we understand the key words and phrases being used in the news. So, here’s a quick guide to some of the language you might read.

Let’s start with the basics; ‘Coronavirus’ describes a family of viruses. When viewed through a microscope, these viruses have lots of spikes, like a crown. The Latin for crown is ‘corona’. The specific coronavirus virus (SARS CoV-2) which was discovered in December 2019, causes the disease we call COVID-19 (the letters are taken from the full name — COrona VIrus Disease – 2019).

Unlike the common cold or flu (an abbreviation of ‘influenza’), up until quite recently COVID-19 was not ‘endemic’ anywhere in the world. ‘Endemic’ describes a pre-existing, low level of a disease. Following the initial ‘outbreak’, when reports of cases from a particular place began to be registered, COVID-19 quickly became an ‘epidemic’ (there was a very fast increase in the number of cases). As the disease spread to different countries, The World Health Organisation (WHO) declared that it was a ‘pandemic’ (‘pan’ is taken from the Greek, meaning ‘all’).

As the number of cases of COVID-19 continued to rise, many countries introduced ‘mitigation’ measures, designed to slow down the ‘rate of transmission’ (often referred to as simply ‘R’ or ‘R0’ – the number of people who are likely to be infected by a single individual). Those returning from foreign countries were and still are, expected to go into ‘quarantine’ (to stay in isolation for a certain period of time). The word ‘quarantine’ comes from the Italian quaranta, meaning forty. In 1377, sailors arriving in Venice from countries which were experiencing plague were forced to wait for forty days before they were allowed to come ashore.

Other mitigation measures have included 'self-isolation' (a form of quarantine), 'social distancing' (staying at least two metres away from one another) and the wearing of face coverings (masks, etc.).

In the UK, the number of cases of COVID-19 is now very low. As a result, the restrictions to people’s movements and behaviour are gradually being relaxed, meaning that we can now meet each other, share meals together and slowly, cautiously start to get back to normal. However, people’s lives have been so affected by the pandemic that some people are now talking about the ‘new normal’. Will people work, communicate or behave differently in the future? Only time will tell.


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