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Coronavirus and Vulnerable Populations: The importance of language

Dr. Joti Samra

June 10, 2020

Relationships

Coronavirus and vulnerable populations: The importance of language and not making assumptions

“It’s okay, you don’t need to worry, only particular vulnerable populations are at risk. This is something you’ve likely heard, or said, since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak. While it’s technically true – the science indicates the elderly and those with compromised immune systems or preexisting respiratory issues are the highest risk populations – it’s important to consider the underlying implications of this message, and who may be receiving the message. It’s important to be thinking about our language when it comes to coronavirus and vulnerable populations.

What are the underlying messages associated with this phrase?

Although we may think phrases like this are reassuring, those receiving the message, unknowing to us, may fall into a high-risk category. We may not intend to, but this phrasing may implicitly communicate that individuals who fall into one of these vulnerable populations are disposable. It may also inadvertently communicate that it’s okay for us to make decisions based on our personal safety level because we are not personally at risk, without thinking about those around us. 

Do you get the flu vaccine every year? Many of us either have or know someone who has. Regardless of your intentions when getting the flu vaccine, the aim is to not only prevent you from getting the flu, but to also increase our entire herd immunity and protect those who are vulnerable and/or unable to get vaccinated for whatever reason. 

Why do we categorize?

Many of us may have used this phrase or something similar since the beginning of the outbreak unintentionally, with the goal of reassuring ourselves and those around us. When we’re overwhelmed and feeling fearful, it’s easy for us to put people into categories because it makes it easier for us to dismiss our feelings when we don’t identify with those categories. So, doing so provides us with temporary relief from our fears. 

Read more about How to Cope with Fear associated with COVI-19.

 

Coronavirus and vulnerable populations:

What can we do differently?

Take this as an opportunity to learn about how the language we use can have a significant impact on those around us. Be open to hearing feedback about your approach and your language, and be willing to change and make amends when appropriate. 

Many of us are worried about our personal safety and what is going to happen with coronavirus as there is still so much that’s unknown. But it’s our responsibility as community members to stay informed and engage in behaviours that are not only going to keep ourselves safe, but prevent transmission of the virus and keep our communities safe without alienating any group. 

Zipporah Arielle wrote a guest post on HuffPost about their experience with the COVID-19 response as a person with an autoimmune disease. Take the time to read their perspective.

For more resources surrounding coronavirus, check out our resources page.

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