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Is Covid 'Cruel'?

“April is the cruellest month,” wrote TS Eliot. Except it isn’t. Well, that’s how it can feel at the moment. At the time of writing, ‘January’ is the cruellest month. And previously, it was ‘December’. Pretty soon, every month is going to be “the cruellest month”, it would seem, as we approach a year of pandemic proportions. So, it seems that the personified ‘cruelty’ of a single, particular month can be misleading.

I remember studying ‘The Waste Land’ (the source of the cruelty of the month of April) at university, and haven’t thought about it much since, to be honest. Except today, for some reason, I noticed the figurative use of the same language by the media in describing aspects of the pandemic. Covid was today, on national news, described as being a “cruel virus.” Are there “kind” ones? Could we have one instead, please? It would make life a lot easier, wouldn’t it, to have a nice, friendly, benign virus that only wants the best for us?

So, the English Language pedant in me kicked into overdrive. Did it really matter that it was being described in human terms? On the surface, no. We expect the media to engage in some florid use of language (even the BBC, where it appeared today) to connect to the audience. But then I wondered some more. Because, deep down, I know that language really does matter. Words are constructs that can describe facts, but they can also describe opinions, feelings and emotions. English is a beautiful language that is rich in its non-literal use of expression, ripe in metaphorical correlations, to make the point more vividly and effectively. The outcome of using figures of speech and tropes is multi-facted and depends on the individual interpretation. But a “cruel virus” hardly seems to do anything except to ‘blame’ the virus for being cruel. Like it has an option not to be, if only we could reason with it. TS Eliot’s dystopian poetry may be apposite at the moment, but that doesn’t mean the dystopia should be cultivated through seemingly benign but actually harmful linguistic cliches, such as calling Covid-19 “cruel.” Cruelty is a human act, one that is too often manifest in the world.

So that’s my point. It can’t be “cruel” and act like a human because it isn’t human. That’s a fact. But it creates the illusion, subconsciously, that the virus is somehow to be “blamed” as an independent protagonist in the unfolding drama. It’s a virus, not a badly behaved child or an evil squire from a novel. Using language in this way is not uncommon, or unsurprising, or indeed bad in itself, but at the moment we are all full of emotions ranging from anger and fatigue, to frustration and resentment and every other conceivable human response. We have enough to deal with in our own emotions and feelings without extraneous personification of inanimate diseases entering the subconsciousness and engendering senses of powerlessness or false hope. The more it happens, the more a tapestry of narrative is woven that creates a particular set of thoughts and therefore emotions and responses. Covid-19 has been compared militaristically to “an enemy” that must be “defeated” by the governments. There’s been a “tooting” of potential victory, a “tunnel” at which light is apparent, metaphorical “trains” transporting the virus to metaphorical “stations”. There are too many to mention, and they’re often unnoticed. But like an episode of a Derren Brown programme, in popular culture the ‘unnoticed’ is sometimes the most powerful influencer of all. It’s what seeps into our minds and creates seemingly inexplicable actions, choices and responses. The danger then is that it becomes something almost separate from actual human behaviour. Humans spread a virus, the actions of individuals in governments create the rules of response in society, individuals in the media communicate the message and the narrative that influences human response. And we as individuals have absolute responsibility for our own actions, but are enormoulsy influenced by the way facts are presented and sometimes how opinions and emotions are presented as facts by the media and by political parties. Teachers are working tirelessly to provide new forms of education for children, parents are trying to educate their children from home in the most difficult of circumstances, health workers are living the emotional consequences of the pandemic and don’t need additional emotional stirring-up of an already febrile existence.

Sometimes in the context of the pandemic, language is used deliberately to create certain effects or responses, and sometimes it’s used clumsily or without definite thought - but it has the same outcome, effectively. At the moment, deliberately emotionalising circumstances is not helpful, even when it’s meant to be. For me, there is an inherent personal irony in all of this, as I am an absolute advocate of the power of the narrative and stories to make sense of complexity, bring it to a point of inherent understanding and to enlighten. I do it all the time, professionally and personally. But language must be treated very carefully and we should try to be conscious and self-aware that our use of language can affect others.

There is an explosion in a word. One only has to witness events from the US to see the impact that the direct words of one particular demagogue and the inference taken by a mob of people have on the destiny of a nation. Words can be weapons, but they can also heal. They can create confusion and they can create clarity if used with care and attention.

At the moment, we are living in times of absolute ‘VUCA’ - volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. We were volatile enough before the pandemic, but that has been amplified exponentially over the past twelve months. So the standard methodical responses and usual solutions just don’t work. The circumstances don’t change, so our responses and thoughts need to. And our use of language needs to be careful. Words are the way we try to grasp our thoughts which are often a miasma in our own minds, let alone when trying to understand the thoughts of others. At crepuscular times like this (pardon the figurative irony of language there), we need to be clear. What is intended to motivate can create uncertainty and what is unintentionally alarmist can create exaggerated danger.

One of the biggest ‘unseen’ dangers is that of mental health. This is regularly reported and accepted as being a “ticking time bomb”. So we need to do all that we can to defuse it, and not unwittingly light the fuse. We need clarity and honest facts from governments so that there is a clear understanding of the circumstances we are all in. There is a responsibility of the media elements that purport to be unbiased in presenting facts as facts. Although it’s hard for us all to accept the facts, they are just that - facts. There is a pandemic. People are dying. Our lives are different. We must be careful with our words when we have positions of influence that can create false hope that leads to despair or personified fear which leads to anxiety. Those in powerful positions such as the media and those in government should take great care with the potency of language.

“Between my finger and my thumb, the squat pen rests; snug as a gun,” wrote the great Seamus Heaney. He knew the power of pen on paper, and now would know the power of the keyboard and the ever-present oratory and prose that seeps into our subconscious minds. So let’s help each other to be mindful, be curious, be conscious and be compassionate. Words themselves won’t kill or cure, but our thoughts and subsequent actions will.

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