APR '20

The Old Language of a New Virus

The way we talk about pandemics has hardly changed.

By Colin Buist


Colin Buist (BAAH 2020) is a writer of art, literature, and queer theories.

Illustration by Ishita Dharap

My friend and I left Chicago on the afternoon of March 13th for a birthday party and an extended weekend at my parents’ house in Michigan. The Wednesday before we left — around the time that the United States classified COVID-19 as a global pandemic — we received word that the party had been cancelled. In a climate of escalating concern and cancellation we grew anxious. Unsure if we should stay or take our trip as planned, we decided it would be best to leave, at least for the weekend. But as we drove, we quickly learned how uncertain this decision really was — would we have to stay there until everything blew over? How long? What was happening? Within hours of arriving at my parents’ quiet home, we were made aware of both stillness and physical space, each of which we’d taken for granted living as students in small apartments in the city. We started watching the news incessantly.

As the news began to swallow me, my mind began grasping for something, anything else. I’ve been thinking a lot about how people talk about the pandemic’s virulence, and I think this question is what has made the outbreak so troubling. That the rhetoric mimics the virus: Infectious anxiety has become its biggest contagion. I began looking backwards in order to look forwards, reading things that could give me some kind of hindsight about my current anxieties. I have revisited literature about the outbreak of HIV in the light of the coronavirus. AIDS is not the same thing as COVID-19, nor is SARS or MERS or any other devastating virus, but looking at other viruses has provided, for me, the template for what the language of the new pandemic might start to look like, albeit largely in the form of a warning sign.

The AIDS epidemic, in particular, teaches us two things: that we cannot anticipate the pandemic’s end, and that there is a devastating consequence of blaming a virus on a singular, generalized demographic of people. AIDS was originally referred to as "gay-related immune deficiency," and informally as the "gay cancer" or as the "gay plague." It became clear that AIDS was not exclusive to the gay community, but the label still stuck.

The virus might be novel, but the response is not.

The current president inexcusably refers to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus,” an overtly racist nomenclature that has heightened discriminatory attacks. Just as AIDS was linked to the gay population from a hateful prejudice, so too has this new virus been incorrectly linked to East Asia, with violent results. The power of language inevitably plagues social groups, leaving them to endure the lasting impacts of stigma, discrimination, and murder. We cannot overlook language’s role in determining our responses to the current pandemic, because it can be, and will be, deadly.

The president has refused to facilitate effective intervention that could save thousands of lives — on top of his rebranding of COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus,” he has yet to make a major disaster declaration. The federal government is not using their power to mandate the production of ventilators, N95 respirators and surgical masks, and other needs that provide healthcare and essential workers with preventative, lifesaving protection. We know that the government will never own up to the fact that their negligence has cost lives that could have been spared. The AIDS epidemic will always remind us of this. The story will go that the government, as a people, handled the pandemic more heroically than anyone else would have been able to, when in reality both HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 have been the result of extreme governmental negligence, inaction, and denial, and even that is a generous way of putting it. The virus might be novel, but the response is not.

Adjustment becomes a privilege in crisis. Adjusting to crisis as a disproportionately affected person — someone who may be at higher risk or have lower ability to access basic needs — is just an escalation of the impending calamity. For those of us who are figuring out these adjustments together, fear has come to define us. It has become our intelligence, our shared language. Fear has brought us together; it has become our binding collective force.

It’s easy to recognize this repetition and feel hopeless. So much is unanswered, and so much is familiar from before. It’s true — we don’t know when the pandemic will end, or how many people will die before things return to some kind of new “normal.” Some have suggested that life will never go back to a "before." That there will no longer be life without the virus, only life with. I’m still at my parents’ house with no set date to return to the city. And it’s hard not to lose hope when there isn’t a tangible end in sight. But I still feel like we have to hold on to something. If not hope, something just below it. For now we wait until our bodies can be close again — to touch, kiss, hold, embrace.

For now, we just wait. f

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