Accurate Communications for COVID-19

As we all try to survive the largest pandemic any of us have ever known, we all have a responsibility to have a working understanding of the situation and disease. For communications professionals like myself, using correct and accurate language can improve this understanding. Inaccurate communication can spread misinformation and misunderstanding. As such, here are some terms and explanations to use so your messaging is correct.

The Disease: COVID-19

COVID-19 is a truncated form of Coronavirus disease 2019. It should be written using capital letters and with a hyphen between COVID and 19. The 19 should not be omitted, as it refers to this specific year and strain of coronavirus disease (previous examples include what were called SARS in 2002 and MERS in 2012).

COVID-19 refers to the disease caused by the virus. Similar to AIDS, which is caused by HIV. The virus is transmitted, but the affliction is referred to as COVID-19.

The Virus: SARS-CoV-2

SARS-CoV-2 is a truncated form of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2. This is the specific strain of virus causing COVID-19, and the World Health Organization considers it accurate to also be referred to as “the virus responsible for COVID-19”.

There are many strains of coronavirus: as mentioned above, previously it caused the diseases SARS and MERS. Given that this strain is everyone’s focus, it’s mutually understood when referring to “coronavirus” as a synecdoche for SARS-CoV-2. However, communications professionals in government or health may be better using the more accurate strain name.

The Situation: Pandemic

A pandemic is “an outbreak of a disease that occurs over a wide geographic area and affects an exceptionally high proportion of the population”. This refers to the global and local situations caused by by the wide-spread SARS-CoV-2 and the resulting COVID-19.

An epidemic is “an outbreak of disease that spreads quickly and affects many individuals at the same time”. While this does describe the situation, referring to it as a pandemic is more accurate as it reflects the wide (global) geography.

An outbreak is “a sudden rise in the incidence of a disease”, and typically refers to local, isolated or specific increases in the disease.

Messaging to Avoid

Using terms like “Chinese coronavirus” are a racist dogwhistle and have no place in professional or equitable communications. As a historic parallel, what is commonly called “The Spanish Flu” was actually first recorded in the United States and other parts of Europe, but was called “The Spanish Flu” because of resentment and scapegoating of Spain, who had remained neutral during the first World War.

Colloquialisms like “the rona” and other euphemisms are both inaccurate and don’t treat this worldwide disease, with death tolls in the hundred thousands and climbing, with appropriate gravity. It is flippant and disrespectful for any professional communications to use terms like this.

Communications professionals should always defer to region-specific and reputable health authorities for information. It is not necessary or appropriate to develop your own health advice.

These are challenging times for everyone, and worse for some more than others. For anyone responsible for professional communications for an organization, using the right message can help foster a better understanding, support effective health practices, and minimize any unnecessary fear or uncertainty.

Alex is a digital marketer, community volunteer, and cat enthusiast living in Ottawa, Canada.