Social distancing. Flattening the curve. Sheltering in place. Lockdowns. R naughts. My vocabulary has exploded along with my stress levels these past few weeks. In addition, I had the grim pleasure of seeing the world introduced to “hydroxychloroquine,” a word I know all too well because this medication keeps my immune system from killing me.
Illness always changes language, just as the language we use for diseases colors our understanding of the world and people around us. Terminology encodes stigma as well as our hopes for assessment, understanding, and healing. This stigma runs deep. I’m convinced, in fact, that illness is the final taboo among otherwise enlightened people. No serious university will refuse to hire someone because of their sexuality, gender identification, race, ethnicity, or physical ability. But what if a hiring committee were to find out about someone’s history of mental or physical chronic illness? Unfortunately, I think such a history would make many otherwise smart people pause.
Yet COVAD-19, despite triggering social isolation and some despicable racist puns, might be the crisis to remind us that we are all vulnerable to illness. We are all fragile. We are all human. The ill are just us on a different day.
The recent racist puns—voiced by members of the U.S. government, no less—suggest that we are no closer to learning empathy from this latest pandemic than we were during AIDS. But I’m still holding out hope that this time around, we might walk away with a sense of solidarity. With every rational person in the world having feared for their health during the COVID-19 crisis, perhaps we as a society might be more likely, from now on, to feel kinship with rather than ostracize the ill.
Once the pandemic gets under control, there are many disturbing but necessary conversations we must have. About racism and economic inequality. About the utter lack of sustainability that got us here, and that will bring us more pandemics if things don’t change. But right now, I want to stay positive: Through our latest lexical remix, a new language may be born.