How We Talk About The Pandemic Still Matters

Photographed by Jessica Xie.
Over the course of the pandemic we’ve talked a lot about… the pandemic. Specifically, we’ve used a variety of terminology, often action verbs, to describe how we’ve been collectively and individually handling COVID-19. 
Early on, we were focused on “flattening the curve.” We talked about not just “surviving” SARS-CoV-2, but “battling” or even “dueling” it. These days, two exhaustive years in, you hear folks talking more about “learning to live with” the virus. And these aren’t just words — the way we talk about how we’re getting through the pandemic can reflect our outlooks — and more importantly, our actions. 
On an individual level, whether we see ourselves as “surviving” or “surrendering to,” or “standing up to” COVID-19 depends a lot on what we’ve been through in the past two years, says Steven Meyers, PhD, a clinical psychologist and professor at Roosevelt University in Chicago. Our personal circumstances — whether we’ve gotten the virus, or lost a job because of pandemic layoffs, or seen loved ones grapple with these same challenges — will impact our attitudes. Faced with overwhelming circumstances like these, people sometimes use verbs like “battling” to feel more in control, says Shikha Jain, MD, FACP, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois Chicago, oncologist, and the president of Women In Medicine. “When people talk about ‘fighting’ a disease or illness, it makes them feel like they’re doing something proactive, and taking action steps to deal with the situation in whatever way they can,” she says. This language, whether it’s subconscious or not, can make us feel like we have agency, even in a tough situation that we can’t exactly make better. 
“​​We feel like we are actively engaged in the process as opposed to feeling passive and potentially helpless,” Dr. Meyers adds. “The issue is that people have different levels of control over [each] particular circumstance. Sometimes we can have a lot of influence over the external realities of a situation, and at other times we only have sway over how we choose to respond.” 
But, lately, it feels our collective verbiage has been less… zealous. People feel mentally worn down. Rather than crusading against COVID, we may see ourselves as simply living with it, especially after the latest Omicron wave, which hit the U.S. hard, with the country averaging about 807,000 COVID cases a day at one point in January, leaving everyone, healthcare workers especially, feeling particularly burnout. With this in mind, some may even think of themselves as “surrendering.” 
“Everybody has COVID fatigue,” Dr. Jain says. “I think some people are just so tired of it, they just want to surrender to COVID, which means acting like it’s not there and removing all risk mitigations… Unfortunately, COVID doesn’t care about our feelings or our burnout. Whether we want it to be over or not, it’s going to continue for a while longer.” 
After all, COVID-19 is finding new ways to mutate and isn’t done with us yet. If we take a nihilistic, que sera sera COVID approach, we may act more laissez-faire when it comes to taking appropriate actions, or inactions, when needed. How we see ourselves coping with, being vanquished by, or tackling outbreaks of the virus, can impact our willingness to mask up when needed and protect each other — not to mention, affect our own mental and physical health. 
And when it comes to this so-called “surrendering,” it’s certainly no public health strategy, either. Amit Arya, MD, summed the dangers of doing so on a collective level up perfectly in a recent tweet: “If we wanted to learn to live with COVID, we could have: Improved ventilation, provided free N95s, expanded PCR testing, increased vaccine uptake, upgraded vaccine passports/mandates, [and] legislated 10 paid sick days for workers,” he wrote. “This is surrendering to COVID, not living with it.” 
In a follow-up conversation with Refinery29, Dr. Arya, a palliative care physician and a lecturer at the University of Toronto, in Toronto, ON, added that now isn’t a time to let our guard down. “The cost of ‘surrendering’ is avoidable suffering and preventable death,” he said. “It’s sad but it’s the reality.” The unvaccinated, partially vaccinated elderly folks, and people with certain pre-existing conditions may be especially susceptible to this truth. 
Some things he and public health officials are concerned about: The latest variant, BA.2, has been on the rise in Europe and Asia, with COVID-19 hospitalizations up 20% in Britain, which tends to have similar COVID patterns to the U.S. And the combination of BA.2 being more transmissible and society opening up with fewer people wearing masks due to the new CDC guidance could spell trouble. Meanwhile, children under 5 years old still aren’t vaccinated — and, over all, 45% of the U.S. isn’t fully vaccinated
“Some places are removing risk-mitigation strategies based on data and numbers, but that’s not true in all cases,” Dr. Jain says. “There are a lot of states that have just decided the pandemic is over and have made decisions based on opinions and not science.” She adds that she doesn’t believe it’s been effectively communicated to the public that where indoor mask requirements have been removed, they can just as easily need to come back when numbers indicate they should. She hopes that, if and when that happens, everyone is willing to jump back into the fight against COVID, so to speak, and follow the guidance — even if we feel “done.” 
“The longer this continues to drag out, the more burned out people will feel and the less likely people will be to engage in risk-mitigation strategies, which is why we need to emphasize the need for vaccines,” Dr. Jain worries. 
The way we talk about COVID can also reflect our politics. Nearly 50% of “very liberal” Americans said they believed COVID presented a “great risk” to their personal health and believed masks should be donned for the foreseeable future, while those who identified as simply “liberal,” “moderate” or “conservative” weren’t as worried, according to an early March 2022 poll conducted by Morning Consult for The New York Times. Based on how they’re seeing risk, someone who’s more liberal may see every day in the pandemic as more of a struggle, something to be survived, while those in the middle may be more likely to say they’re just “living with” it. (Meanwhile, some conservative people may also view the pandemic as a “fight,” but more for their individual freedom to not to wear a mask.) 
Fighting, surviving, surrendering — all these mindsets are worth analyzing, Dr. Meyers says. “Are you using the framework that you need to survive or accept what’s happening? There’s merit in both, but sometimes we don’t think about the overarching frameworks we use to view our lives. Perhaps we’re not using the right one…  What are we sacrificing, and what are we gaining, by viewing things this way?” One way or the other isn’t necessarily right or wrong, but thinking about how these words guide our day-to-day life is helpful. 
For example, for the longest time, Julie Blackburn thought of herself as doing everything she could to “dodge” the virus. The mother of two has Primary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis (PPMS), a condition that affects the central nervous system and that has left her immunocompromised. “[Until recently], I was always trying to be the family who didn’t get it,” she reflects. “We were smart, and did everything right, but the virus hurt us anyway.” She and her entire family contracted the virus this January when the Omicron wave hit. She believes she came out of it okay because she was vaccinated, boosted, and received an antibody infusion, but the experience changed the way she’s thinking about the virus. “Now, we’re ‘living with’ COVID and assuming it’s never going away,” she says.
Although she says that mental shift felt bleak in some ways, especially as an immunocompromised person who doesn’t feel the regulations in her state necessarily take her life into account, it also took a weight off her shoulders, in a way, and helped her come to a place of "accepting." She says she’s still going to follow guidance and even go beyond it to protect herself and others when necessary, but she’s no longer as fixated on a factor she can’t absolutely determine on her own: whether or not she gets sick.
As we navigate the stressful reality that, for the foreseeable future, we’ll likely have to learn to coexist with COVID, that’s something to keep in mind. Especially because this truth may weigh on us more heavily than we think. As Dr. Meyers puts it, we’re all essentially wearing a “COVID backpack.” “We’ve all been carrying around a burden, a persistent weight, over the past few years,” he says. “We might not even be aware of it all the time because we have our hands free."
But when we remember and acknowledge that these backpacks exist, it can help us be kinder to ourselves, and remember that there are external factors at play impacting our mental health — both when COVID rates are spiking and when case counts are down. We are all being affected by the pandemic, whether we recognize it or not, and whether we see it as a fight, an annoyance, or a truth we’re learning to accept. 
As we look forward, there are still a lot of unknowns, and there will almost surely be some adversity. But one thing is for sure: our decisions to surrender to, battle, or live with COVID and all that comes with it will surely shape our realities.

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