When the pandemic first started, we were quick with the jokes and the memes, but we still called the pandemic by its name. A year later, and the jokes and memes are still flying, but now we’ve also grown used to giving it nicknames: It’s not the pandemic, it’s the panoramic, the Pandora, the Panasonic, or the panini.
Why did it take so long? Maybe we were shy at first, even the early memes consisted mostly of funny songs to wash our hands to. But as the bungled responses and death toll mounted, the memes turned darker and more desperate, to the point where a video of a knife slicing through a cake could trigger an existential crisis. We tried looking for a bright side with the “Nature is Healing” meme, but it only reminded us of how awful things were pre-pandemic. We adapted, eventually, to our newly outlined quarantine lives — full of home-made lunches, virtual therapy, and Yoga with Adriene. So much domestic momentum contrasting against the empty streets and strained government response to the actual pandemic that threatened our lives. The pandemic felt impossible to pin down in every way, even in name.
We tried, though, in the beginning, and then we kept trying. First, about a month into the pandemic, we grew petulant, giving it teasing nicknames like “The Rona,” and “Miss Rona,” or the very cruel Boomer Remover. But these nicknames only appeared in humorous Tweets and TikToks, neutralizing the too-serious “pandemic” to save the joke. A nickname for the everyday mention of the pandemic had yet to emerge.
Then, colloquially, we settled on calling it “COVID-19,” using “COVID” for short. Those with professional healthcare or epidemiology connections said “SARS-Cov-2.” Technically, we should be referring to it as “the coronavirus,” but “the” gives it too much reverence and makes it sounds like it’s a novelty akin to “the Facebook.” If Cardi B is any indication of the futility of our early attempts to wrap our words around the pandemic, the article-less “CORONAVÍRUS” Instagram video she made way back at the pandemic’s beginning was a failed punchline about things like delayed packages and halted business deals — still, she may be forgiven; March 10th, 2020 was another time.
Journalists, politicians, broadcasters, and TikTokkers have all taken a specific liking to calling it the “global pandemic” despite how compactly and succinctly the prefix “pan-” is at expressing this outbreak’s global nature. But perhaps it isn’t redundant, perhaps it just bears repeating. As we arrive at the Pandora’s anniversary, “COVID” and “the pandemic” have come to encompass more than just a virus. These words are shorthand for the crushing existential dread, social stasis, stunted growth, ceaseless self-realization, countless deaths, paradigm shifts, and profound communal impact brought on by this era.
The novel coronavirus had been making international headlines since late 2019 and it kept spreading and spreading, taking lives and graduating slowly from outbreak to epidemic. Until this week last year, when the World Health Organization declared it a “global pandemic.” At the time, there was hesitance on all sides to sound the capital “P” alarm. Dr. Anthony Fauci told CNN in February that declaring it a pandemic is “really borderline semantics,” saying also that “pandemics mean different things to different people.”
So we’ve given the pandemic different nicknames, ones that are reborn with every new mention and are apt to be used when talking about any of its horrific consequences. This panoramic has touched our lives in unimaginable ways. This Panda Express has been grueling for long enough, so if we want to call it a Panera Bread, we fucking will. At best, these absurd surrogates let us dance with how nebulous and unyielding the entire situation has been; for how powerless it’s shown us to be. It is because of its seriousness that we are entitled to call it funny names, as we carry on and talk about our silly little lives.