President Biden, we know you can’t “end the pandemic” medically; we want you to end it socially.
A linguist argues that the Biden Administration should refocus on a realistic interpretation of this under-specified slogan.
I am delighted to feature this guest post by Dr. Lelia Glass (PhD). Lelia works as an assistant professor of linguistics at Georgia Institute of Technology. Her research explores how our knowledge of the physical and social world shapes our understanding of language. She is absolutely right that ending cases is not a realistic goal; Restoring normalcy is.
By Lelia Glass
On the campaign trail, now-President Joe Biden promised: “We’re going to beat this virus. We’re going to get it under control, I promise you.” Approaching the 2022 midterm elections, strategists worry that the American people view this as a broken promise. Other commentators suggest that the Biden administration has failed in its goal to “end the pandemic”.
As a linguist, I cannot claim expertise in biology or public health. But our pandemic response is constructed through public discourse – policies, commentary, and journalism – using the medium of language, so my field of expertise can illuminate a linguistic problem with Biden’s promises. The problem is that different people interpret the same words to mean different things. Even if we all agree that it would be desirable to “get covid under control” or “end the pandemic,” we don’t actually agree on what real-world situations these words describe.
“Get covid under control” and “end the pandemic” are vague slogans, along the same lines as those that have been reified into hashtags: flatten the curve, defund the police, believe women, Medicare For All, and so on. These are shorthand for rich real-world situations whose details we do not specify, and we rely on shared knowledge to fill in the blanks. But if officials and the public fill in the blanks differently, they can argue past each other – or they can think that they agree on a shared goal when they actually envision drastically different realities. When the public finally realizes that they’ve disagreed with their officials all along, they can feel betrayed.
“Get covid under control” – once and for all, or with continued restrictions?
Even if most of Biden’s voters agreed with his campaign promise to “get covid under control” in the abstract, this slogan does not specify whether the state of being “under control” involves a one-time effort, or a sustained effort over time. If you unlock a door, you do it once and you can forget it; if you lift an overhead hatch, maybe you have to keep holding it up so that it doesn’t fall back down again.
So when people heard in Summer 2020 that Biden aimed to “get covid under control,” some people imagined an optimistic state of affairs whereby, once we all got vaccinated or wore masks for just 100 days (https://www.today.com/health/biden-ask-100-days-masking-u-s-will-it-work-t204564), covid might be suppressed to such a permanently low level that most of us could forget about it, just as we forget about polio. Such people imagined a one-time, short-term effort to “get covid under control,” like unlocking a door.
Unfortunately, this outcome seems fantastical now that the coronavirus has been found to be highly transmissible even among vaccinated populations. Now, the goal of getting “under control” has evolved to describe a bleaker state of affairs where we attempt to keep covid cases low through an aggressive platform of escalating public health interventions, including mandated vaccinations, boosters, masks, and social restrictions. Of course, the people who make such policies are not always the people most affected by them: Zoom workers who mask for an hour a week mandate masks for schoolchildren and service workers eight hours a day. This version of getting covid “under control” requires sustained strain on those groups, like holding up an overhead hatch.
As a result, those who aspired to the optimistic version of getting covid “under control” through a one-time effort may feel betrayed now that our onerous efforts to keep it “under control” don’t match what they thought was advertised.
“End the pandemic” – medically, or socially?
The Biden Administration has also set out to “end the pandemic” (https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/09/24/global-covid-19-summit-ending-the-pandemic-and-building-back-better/), while leaving even public health experts confused (https://www.vox.com/the-weeds/2021/12/3/22815961/covid-19-pandemic-policy-goals-weeds-newsletter) as to what that would mean.
The word pandemic refers to both medical and social realities, so this slogan doesn’t specify whether it calls for ending the pandemic medically by curtailing the coronavirus to some degree; or ending it socially by rolling back restrictions such as mask mandates. The most optimistic way to “end the pandemic” might involve both elements – curtailing the virus and then scrapping the social restrictions. But given that the coronavirus is easily transmitted even among vaccinated people, it seems that the virus will realistically circulate forever.
To “end the pandemic” in the medical sense, officials aim to curtail the virus through stricter vaccine mandates and higher-tech masks. When leaders call for a vaccine mandate for air travel (https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/why-there-no-covid-vaccine-mandate-america-s-airlines-ncna1287196) or mandate N95-style masks in schools (https://www.berkeleyschools.net/2022/01/expanded-testing-and-additional-covid-updates-pruebas-ampliadas-y-actualizaciones-adicionales-sobre-covid/), they are trying to “end the pandemic” medically, even while amplifying its associated social restrictions.
The problem is that the medical sense of “ending the pandemic” appears doomed to failure. The coronavirus continues to spread even in locations with a high vaccination rate and strict mask policies, such as San Francisco (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/us/california-covid-cases.html). Moreover, the people who hoped to “end the pandemic” in the social sense may become increasingly frustrated that the social restrictions continue to escalate with no end in sight.
Instead, I would argue that our officials should refocus on the more realistic goal of “ending the pandemic” socially, rolling back mandates and allowing people to live with the freedom we enjoyed in 2019. Resources should be expanded even as restrictions are rolled back: we could dedicate public funds to raise the capacity of hospitals; pay at-risk people to get vaccinated or boosted; make it easier for under-privileged people to see doctors and afford drugs; encourage people to exercise by building parks and paths; teach kids to cook healthy food in school; and address the harms to education and mental health caused by our pandemic response. But the goal would be to “end the pandemic” by ending the social restrictions that have become synonymous with it.
Our leaders should aim to “end the pandemic” socially, not medically
As the 2022 midterms approach and the American public becomes increasingly frustrated with our pandemic response (https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/coronavirus-polls/), officials and journalists should explain slogans in full detail, so that we can all debate the same reality.
When we use our growing epidemiological knowledge to fill in the blanks left open by a short slogan, we realize that getting covid “under control” entails a sustained, onerous effort; and that “ending the pandemic” medically would require us to conquer a virus as intractable as the wind. But “ending the pandemic” socially lies entirely within our own hands: we designed the social reality of the pandemic; we can redesign it. The Biden Administration could salvage its pandemic woes by pursuing this realistic way of ending it.
Author bio: Lelia Glass (Ph.D.) works as an assistant professor of linguistics at Georgia Institute of Technology, but all views expressed are exclusively her own. Her research explores how our knowledge of the physical and social world shapes our understanding of language.