We Don’t Have The Words For What We’re Living Through

We Don’t Have The Words For What We’re Living Through

“Quarantine” was never quite right. “Reopening” isn’t an accurate term either. What we’re going through as a society is unprecedented, and we do not have the words to describe it. I think that’s because we can’t name that which we can barely wrap our minds around.

I first recall hearing the term social distancing in the context of Chinese officials cancelling New Year celebrations in February. It felt like a bird’s-eye view kind of term, something you would apply as you’re looking down on an ant colony. By March, the preferred term was physical distancing, a recognition that we aren’t trying to disrupt social connections, just physical proximity. Certainly most of us are staying at home and away from other people as much as possible, but physical distancing still feels less than a fit for total societal upheaval.

What’s the word for staying at home?

Colloquially, a lot of us talk about quarantine: #QuarantineLife, quarantinis. The technical meaning of quarantine, as the word is currently used in public health, is reserved for someone suspected of carrying an infectious agent who is not obviously sick yet. Meanwhile, somebody who is showing symptoms gets isolated.

And yet isolation is also an everyday word implying loneliness. So we talk about self-isolating even outside the context of illness. If you’re all by yourself in your apartment, you sure feel isolated.

Part of why we stay home is out of prudence, as well as managing our own personal tolerance for risk. But another aspect includes the government regulations that mandate, for example, the closure of businesses. These aren’t quite shelter-in-place orders, because that term comes from dangers like active shooters and potential radioactive fallout. A stay-at-home order is closer to the truth, but in many places it’s fine to go for a walk. It’s not quite right to call it a lockdown or a shutdown either. You get what I’m saying: We don’t have a word or phrase that communicates what we are and aren’t doing.

What’s the word for the thing that comes next?

Quarantine, in the health sense, is an on-or-off state. You are quarantined until either you get sick or a certain amount of time passes; then you are free. A lockdown ends when you unlock the door. A stay-at-home order can be lifted, at which point, one assumes, we no longer have to stay at home.

If we had managed to cut off the virus’s spread with a harsh two-week shutdown, it might have been possible to end it with a simple reopening. But that’s not what’s going to happen now.

Cities, states and countries will ease restrictions—if not now, then someday soon. We already make tradeoffs: hospitals and grocery stores are still open. Family members get to quarantine (or whatever we’re calling it) together. Even before we fully control the virus, some restrictions may have to be eased.

We’ll be living in a grey area, probably for years, during which society will not be fully locked down, yet won’t be fully open. This, too, will be unprecedented: Should restaurants reopen first, or last? Where should schools fall on the spectrum? When can hospitals resume elective procedures? If nobody is stopping you from visiting friends, when should you consider it safe to do so?

The word reopening is not enough to describe all of this, and I think giving it a single, open-and-shut name encourages us to think of it like a light switch. We were living our normal lives, and then suddenly everything went dark. But that doesn’t mean we can flip the switch back the other way just as suddenly.

We need a new word for this. The WHO talks about easing restrictions. Some governors speak of phases or levels.

What should we be calling all of this? Is there a better word for “staying at home when we can because we’re afraid of catching a deathly disease and/or doing what we can to comply with orders that some of us agree with and some of us don’t”? How about for “starting to be near people again while a deadly disease is still circulating”? What have you been calling either of these phenomena? If you could invent a new word, what would it be?

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