With governments around the world scrambling to contain the spread of COVID-19 and senior medical officers warning of the dangers of contagion there is every reason to feel anxious. The threat is real and will be with us for some time.
Keeping safe has become a priority. Many of us have adopted the precautionary measures the government recommends – stay at home, avoid public gatherings, limit close contact with people, practice good hygiene, and wear surgical masks when required. Acting responsibly is one way we can show we care for those around us. As one medical professional expressed it:
The real hero is anyone who doesn’t flout the rules.
But compliance does not guarantee immunity. Despite our best efforts we may yet contract the virus. The chance of infection is real as our understanding of how the virus spreads is still incomplete.
We need to maintain our vigilance, heed the warnings, and modify our behaviour to ensure our safety and of those we interact with.
There is no place for arrogant declarations that boast of resistance to infection. Experience tells us:
‘Arrogance ultimately leads to humiliation and defeat’
We need to heed what Bill Gates has to say.
There are numerous examples from history of people who have been forced to isolate themselves for their own protection.
Anne Frank and her Jewish family sought refuge in the cramped annex over her father’s warehouse in Amsterdam. It is where they would spend the next two years, hiding from the Nazis. They understood that any ill-advised contact could jeopardise their hopes of survival.
Anne was given a small red-and-white ‘autograph book’ by her parents for her thirteenth birthday. She would use the book as a journal.
According to her father, Otto, Anne did not write every day, but she always wrote when she was upset or dealing with a problem. She also wrote when she was confused or curious.
Writing allowed Anne to process her thoughts. She could dissect her feelings and reactions. She could record her experiences: the moments of insight and understanding; the moments of fear and loneliness; the moments of sorrow and regret.
From her first entry Anne knew her words would be read. Despite the uniqueness of her experience her words have universal appeal. Anne was mindful of her future readers and derived strength from them, sensing their comfort and support.
Anne was grateful for her gift of writing, to be able to express all that was within her. She says,
Even when confronted with our mortality, words can be transformative, clarifying our vision of what matters most.
At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decades training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi, was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer.
One day he was a doctor treating the dying, the next he was a patient struggling to live.
This has been the experience of medical staff across the world, who have been on the frontline, caring for patients infected with the coronavirus. Often a lack of clear protocols, a shortage of protective clothing and masks, and high levels of stress has led to an unacceptable risk of getting sick.
In places like New York City where the number of deaths is high, the medical workforce is under incredible strain. Choices must be made. Often it is as basic as which patient will I help.
Doctors aren’t machines. They feel anxious. They feel burdened. They feel powerless when they see people dying who were completely well.
And yet, it is pleasing to observe the spontaneous outpouring of support and gratitude for our healthcare workers. They have a vital role to play and they are valued.
When Paul Kalanithi struggled with the ‘not knowing’ his oncologist would say,
‘I can’t tell you a time. You’ve got to find what matters to you most.’
For Kalanithi it was to complete his memoir, When Breath Becomes Air, which he wrote from his wheelchair.
It takes courage for health workers to take up the fight against the virus anew each day. The words of Paul Kalanithi provide inspiration, encouraging perseverance and determination.
“I woke up in pain, facing another day – no project beyond breakfast seemed tenable. ‘I can’t go on,’ I thought, and immediately, its antiphon responded, completing Samuel Beckett’s seven words, words I had learned long ago as an undergraduate: ‘I’LL GO ON.’ I got out of bed and took a step forward, repeating the phrase over and over: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’”
Words are a powerful force. They allow us to express what we are living.
COVID-19 has transformed and expanded the vocabulary of our daily lives.
Words like pandemic, epicentre, asymptomatic, immunocompromised, communicable, and isolation have become a part of regular conversation, along with terms such as elbow bump, PPE (personal protective equipment), red zone, community transmission, contact tracing, self-quarantine, social distancing and flattening the curve.
The words that are used during the pandemic inform and help keep us safe.
We know that socially distancing or physical distancing, staying at least two metres apart, helps avoid the spread of coronavirus by limiting our exposure to airborne droplets when we talk or cough.
We know that steering clear of hot spots and red zones, areas with a heavy concentration of COVID-19 cases, can flatten the curve, slowing the spread of the disease and helping doctors and nurses avoid a sudden overload of patients.
But words are not always a positive force. They can be used with evil intent. Words can destroy our identity and diminish our freedom. Words can manipulate our passions and mould our prejudices. Words can humiliate our ideals and hijack our happiness.
In his futuristic novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell writes of a world shaped by surveillance and intimidation.
The ruling Party controls everything in Oceania, even the people’s history and language. Currently, the Party is forcing the implementation of an invented language called Newspeak, which discourages free thinking. By reducing the number of words and paring back their meaning the government can shut down any new or contrary thought, thus maintaining absolute control.
Winston Smith is a low-ranking member of the ruling Party in London. He works in the Ministry of Truth, where he alters historical records to fit the needs of the Party. Winston feels frustrated by the oppression and rigid control of the Party who scrutinise every human action with ever-watchful Big Brother. He illegally purchases a diary in which to write his rebellious thoughts, knowing that if it is found it will result in his death.
In describing Winston Smith, Orwell says,
Adjusting to COVID-19 is throwing up enormous challenges, none greater than remaining sane. Words are our lifeline. They nourish us and nurture us.
As author Katherine Hurst says,