These are abnormal times we are expected to refer to as the new normal. That is but one of the many changes the Covid-19 pandemic, or the coronavirus, has been inflicting on life all across the globe. With more than 10,000,000 people affected by the malady globally and with 500,000-plus deaths so far across vast swathes of the earth, perceptions of life have certainly been going through change of the kind one had never expected before.
And part of the change, in this new normal, has had to do with the sheer extent of the words and terms that have made their way into everyday language in the wake of the coronavirus. We are now familiar as never before with such advice as 'stay at home' and 'stay safe'. In the times before the coronavirus descended on us --- and, yes, it is also noted as 'novel coronavirus' --- staying home and staying safe were part of the security we instinctively knew had to be an underpinning of quotidian life. Covid-19 has, however, accorded a mandatory meaning to these terms, defiance of which will either bring down the law on us or push us into dangers bordering on the fatal.
A whole new meaning has come to 'lockdowns'. In earlier times, in strictly political terms, people in certain societies knew what curfews and blackouts were about. But a lockdown? Today it is a familiar term, raising before us spectres of entire populations in cities or towns compelled into confining themselves at home. Fear of infection, of contamination, has left the streets free of human movement. We are locked down at home, per courtesy of the coronavirus. And in the wake of the lockdowns have come all those red, yellow and green zones. Colours we were wont to spot at road traffic signals are today indicators of where we and our neighbours happen to be in terms of the virulence or otherwise of Covid-19. Where once we inhabited a frontier-free world insofar as our towns and cities were concerned, we have today the barriers of red, yellow and green demarcating one area from another.
Familiarity or a general sense of acceptance of such terms as 'peaking' is now part of our everyday vocabulary. In America and Brazil and India and Bangladesh, the coronavirus contamination is peaking even as health experts and citizens across the board eagerly wait for a 'plateau-ing' in the numbers of infections and resultant deaths. Now, there we have a new term, plateau-ing, an offshoot of the horror we are plodding through. The word 'mask' has acquired new meaning and equally new urgency. Worries continue to be expressed over the lack of adequate supplies of personal protective equipment, or PPE. Now, something of a dilemma comes in with our reference to this equipment, when an 's' cannot be added at its end to differentiate its plural form from the singular. So how does one refer, in the plural sense, to it? Should it be PPE or PPEs?
The pandemic --- notice how we have left 'epidemic' behind --- has obviously taken us back to history somewhat, through reminding us of the Spanish flu slightly over a century ago. Besides, homebound by the crisis, people have been breaking out of this imprisonment in 'virtual' forms. Seminars and meetings are today the stuff of virtual presentations of ideas. We are now familiar with things virtual, as we are with 'zoom' and 'webinars'. Never mind that a good many among us are not enough techno-savvy as to be able to go zooming or partaking of webinars, but there they are, right out of the coronavirus and in our face. The virus has let us in on the reality of 'wet markets', places where it allegedly originated. Wuhan will forever from here on occupy a loaded page in history. 'Oximeter', 'worldometer' and 'ventilator' have gained a new niche in the health dictionary, as has 'herd immunity.' We need to have 'sanitisers' within reach.
Covid-19 has forced us into turning our backs on social closeness and cohesion and towards 'social distancing'. We do not meet one with the other, but if we do, we stay well away from one another. We must not touch each other with a barge pole. And while the world, especially the developed regions of it, scrambles to find a vaccine for the virus, we have already been made familiar with 'remdesivir' and 'hydroxichloroquine' and plain 'chloroquine'. Health experts in Britain have been cheering themselves on having created 'dexamethasone', a drug that could save the lives of people made critically ill by the coronavirus.
Language is forever an engine powered by dynamism or a reinvention of existing vocabulary. Thus it is with the words, terms and phrases we have tried mastering since the coronavirus pandemic began wreaking havoc in what used to be our normal world. And, yes, do note how the pandemic has been giving a new coat of paint to 'stimulus packages', 'downsizing', 'asymptomatic' and the like.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is senior journalist and columnist