From the person staying inside and disinfecting their mail to the person on the crowded beach, we need to feel safe in order to function. We normalize that sense of security in a societal setting through communication. How we speak is one way our society stages the global discussion.
Words like “essential” and “front lines” have become common since the novel coronavirus changed our daily lives. Today these words, like euphemisms, can make people feel more comfortable about an intensely uncomfortable situation. Analyzing how we speak and are spoken to about the global pandemic can reveal what is truly meant — we will not “treat” the virus, rather, "we will defeat the virus.”
People use this wartime rhetoric to turn our “invisible enemy” — this seemingly undefeatable virus — into something tangible and blamable across ideological divides. That definition returns a sense of security.
We name the normally trod-upon grocers and overworked nurses “essential” so they become sacrificial martyrs. These are people who cannot work from home, and the nature of their work guarantees proximity to people and the virus. They have become our new “heroes,” treated with reverence by some and disrespect by others that has quickly turned into violence.
What must be kept in mind is that they would not be on the “front lines” if our leadership acted quickly and efficiently. Whether we personally know these people or not, we can offer more than moral support with our words – our actions must be free from fear and hate.
When two hairstylists exposed 140 people to the coronavirus in Missouri, the fault was not the workers’. It’s easy to speak about them as culpable parties, but it’s easier to forget they did not decide to reopen the salon. The store owners made that decision to stay in business.
Conversations focus on how the workers “continued going to work” while omitting the larger context of choices made by more powerful actors, whether they be the paycheck protection program's rough start or the state government choosing to reopen only a few months after the advent of a global pandemic.
Properly attributing responsibility is necessary so the more powerful actors can be held accountable. For instance, there are multiple reports of experts warning the U.S. government about the possibility of a pandemic as early as last year. The World Health Organization announced a shortage of protective gear just before the outbreak in the U.S. escalated. The president had every opportunity to better prepare for the pandemic and mitigate the staggering loss of life, but instead spent months downplaying the severity of the situation.
“Essential workers” are not soldiers on the “front lines,” and we are not in a war with an “invisible enemy.” We are all survivors of a government that failed to protect us and corporations that want to make a profit. How we talk about 2020 will define how we remember who is responsible for our blood on their hands.