There is a raft of language around the coronavirus pandemic, which reflects new situations that require a whole different everyday vocabulary. Beware of confusion, however – not all these terms are what they seem.
Social distancing, refers to creating physical distance between people rather than preventing social connection. On the contrary, it is more important than ever to connect with colleagues, friends and family for emotional support – even if you are physically separated from them. Fortunately, this can happen virtually.
There is a distinction between self-isolation and self-quarantine.Isolation and quarantine help protect the public by preventing exposure to people who have or may have a contagious disease.
Isolation separates sick people with a quarantinable communicable disease from people who are not sick.
Quarantine separates and restricts the movement of people who were exposed to a contagious disease to see if they become sick.
A lighter approach is to self-monitor, which includes regularly checking your temperature and watching for signs of a respiratory illness, such as fever, cough or shortness of breath, while limiting – but not excluding – interaction with others.
So if you are sick, you self-isolate. If you are at high risk of becoming sick because you were in direct contact with someone who is sick, you self-quarantine. Finally, if you attended an event where someone sitting at the other side of the room later became sick, you self-monitor.
If you are an asymptomatic carrier, you show no signs of illness, yet you can pass on the virus to others. This is to be distinguished from an incubatory carrier, who transmits pathogens immediately following infection but prior to developing symptoms.
And who is “patient zero”? In any given country, this is the first confirmed local case of the disease. Unfortunately, COVID-19 patient zeros can be incubatory or asymptomatic carriers of the pathogens, so tracing them is incredibly difficult.
Which leads to the word, pathogen. Some might refer to pathogens as “nasty bugs” – a useful (but unscientific) umbrella term that includes viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites. COVID-19 is the disease resulting from the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Since the current outbreak, there has been widespread commentary from epidemiologists, who measure epidemiological outcomes. These are the disease outcomes relative to the population at risk. So when they talk about flattening the curve, they are referring to slowing the spread of the virus through public health measures. Epidemiologists try to predict the outbreak’s peak – whenthe number of new infections in a single day reaches its highest point – but accuracy is extremely difficult.
Coronavirus is not the first pandemic to have swept across the world wreaking havoc and it seems there is precedent for these seismic health events to change cultures and create new language. Novel concepts enter the consciousness and the linguistic frames of reference shift to describe the extraordinary.
Sources: weforum.org and cdc.gov