Charles Gutjahr

Melbourne, Australia

July 2020

Charles Gutjahr

Blog post

Pandemic words week #3: Lockdown

27 Jul 2020 — a 2 minute read on COVID-19 Words

Lockdown

All us Melbournians are stuck at home in lockdown right now. But why are we calling it "lockdown"? That is not the term which the Victorian Government uses, they call it "Stay at Home" restrictions. They're the ones imposing it so why aren't we using their term?

Perhaps it's because pretty much all the media call it "lockdown"... ABC, Herald Sun, The Age, The Saturday Paper all the term. Or perhaps the media is reflecting what we all say. Have a look at the Google searches for "lockdown" versus "stay at home"... the latter hardly even registers:

Google Trends chart for 'lockdown' versus 'stay at home'

Regardless of why we use it, I think we shouldn't be. "Lockdown" has connotations of prisons and confinement, like the state is impinging on our freedoms. But these laws aren't in place to subjugate us, they're to help us and protect our health. They're a good thing! I reckon saying "lockdown" undermines that.

The problem is that "stay at home" is a bit wishy-washy. Sure it's clear, but it's not catchy like "lockdown" is.

I reckon the better option is "shelter in place", a term often used in the USA. That has a similar sense of urgency and seriousness to "lockdown" but much less negative insinuation. It feels more protective, like the state trying to warn us rather than punish us.

There are a handful of Melbournians complaining that restrictions are punishing us; fortunately their number are tiny and they are pretty much irrelevant right now. But like the virus itself a tiny number can grow exponentially if unchecked. Just like wearing a mask makes a small but useful contribution to preventing viral spread, using more positive terms could make a small but useful contribution to keeping negative sentiment in check.

Charles Gutjahr

Blog post

Pandemic words week #2: Second Wave

19 Jul 2020 — a 2 minute read on COVID-19 Words

Second Wave

What term could be more appropriate for my second week of judging pandemic words than 'second wave'? After all we're in one right now, right?

This is another term that I'd never heard before this pandemic, but now it is everywhere — and I like it! It's a good one because it sets expectations in our minds. Every time we hear second wave it is a succinct reminder to expect that this virus can come back, and hopefully that encourages people to stay vigilant and keep up the habits which reduce transmission.

I reckon it's good for our mental health too. Imagine if we strutted around in Australia with a big sign saying 'Mission Accomplished' because we'd almost eliminated the virus here by June... how would we feel when it surged again in July? It would be a lot harder to cope with if you thought that was the end of the pandemic. Hopefully all the talk of a second wave means people were mentally prepared for this surge and don't feel crushed by it. And you know what waves do? Waves pass, waves don't last forever. Calling it a wave also gives hope that this too will pass.

There is a slight catch, though, in that the term isn't technically accurate. First up, Dr Norman Swan:

Increasingly the experts in this area say we should stop talking about second wave because 'second wave' applies to influenza and a different environment. Here we are really just talking about spikes, and we are definitely in a second spike.

ABC Coronacast, 30 June 2020

The World Health Organization has been stressing recently that there is no specific definition of a second wave. It seems like the WHO feels people are misusing it, using second wave to describe what is really just the expected spikes of a first wave.

Then there is the problem that second wave implies a repeat of what happened last time... but this new surge in Victoria is very different. Have a look at these graphs from covid19data.com.au:

The first peak in March-April is mainly Victorians who caught the virus overseas:

Victorian daily new COVID-19 cases, caught overseas

The new peak in July is mainly Victorians who caught the virus locally:

Victorian daily new COVID-19 cases, caught locally

The two peaks have very different causes. It would be a mistake to treat this surge as just a repeat of last time, but perhaps the term could lull people into thinking that.

Still I think second wave is a good term. Sure the term isn't being used accurately, and we're perhaps not technically in a second wave here in Victoria yet. It doesn't matter. I think the value of second wave is not in describing what is, but in describing what could be.

Charles Gutjahr

Blog post

Judging pandemic words

12 Jul 2020 — a 1 minute read on COVID-19 Words

For a while I was posting a short opinion online each weekend, more for my benefit than yours. I find writing down my thoughts a useful bit of introspection. It is a chance to evaluate whether my instinctive reaction to an issue is right, whether I would be comfortable writing it down and standing by those words.

I had stopped in this pandemic because I don't feel like I can contribute. I don't have the scientific or epidemiological expertise that is necessary to provide valid opinions on COVID-19 — and honestly I reckon most opinions I see are junk because they too lack that expertise.

Maybe I can't opine on how to deal with the virus itself, but I reckon the language we use to describe it is fair game. Some words that we use every day I had never heard of a few months ago. Why do we use those words and not other ones?

So now Melbourne is in lockdown (ooh! there's a word!) for six weeks, let's see if I can keep up six weeks of judging pandemic words.

Week 1: Social distancing

How did we end up with the term 'social distancing' when it means distancing yourself physically from other people, not distancing yourself socially from them? I reckon we ended up with the wrong term here. It should have been 'physical distancing'.

'Physical distancing' has a natural meaning: tell me to physically distance and I can guess what you mean. But before this pandemic 'social distancing' would have sounded more like 'social isolation' or 'social withdrawal' to me; not what is meant by the term, and indeed exactly the opposite of what we should be doing. This pandemic is hard on our mental health and we need to keep up that social contact even when we are physically distant.

I'm glad to see that the Victorian and Australian governments seem to have switched to saying physical distancing now. I have too.

Charles Gutjahr

The Alehouse Project
Cramming in some pub time tonight before they’re shut for the next few weeks.