Executive Leadership Coach and Author Rachel Ellison Ltd
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Panic and the coronavirus pandemic: the language of boundaries in a crisis

In her fifth article in a new content series on panic and the coronavirus pandemic, Rachel Ellison MBE discusses what the language we’re using during the Covid-19 outbreak reveals about our thought processes.

9th Apr 2020
Executive Leadership Coach and Author Rachel Ellison Ltd
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iStock/Mykyta Dolmatov

Restaurants, parks, cinemas and fitness clubs are now closed. All but essential food shopping has gone online. Pharmacies let people through the door, but only one customer at a time. The children of key workers must shower both before and after school.

Those who’ve lived through the Ebola Virus, SARS or swine flu, may recognise some of the anti-contagion measures but for most of us, quarantine is a new, surreal and sometimes alarming experience.

From soap to social distancing, we’ve seen an incremental tightening of boundaries and barriers, alongside ultra-vigilant hygiene protocols. Scientific advice and government directives attempt to reduce our physical connection, in a bid to gain control of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Terms such as ‘lockdown’ and ‘self-isolation’ have slipped into our lexicon as if we always spoke like this.

Apart from an unexpected show of angst regarding toilet roll and flour, one of the strongest urges appears to be the human drive to connect. Society is driven by contact – the desire to touch, to be close. The drive – or is it the instinct – to create community?

Demand for virtual conversation is soaring. From business meetings and ‘office drinks’, to yoga classes, music lessons and home schooling – in every discipline, leaders are finding ways to stay solvent as well as take care of psychological wellbeing.

For coaches, this is a time of opportunity – both paid and pro-bono – to make a real difference, helping our clients unpack what they are experiencing. It’s also an ideal time to tune in carefully to the language we and others are using to express ourselves. 

The language of contagion

Let’s look at the language of boundaries, borders and barriers. Terms such as ‘lockdown’ and ‘self-isolation’ have slipped into our lexicon as if we always spoke like this. Medical staff appeal desperately for more ‘PPE’ (personal protective equipment), we witness their simultaneous desire for separation and distance, with a fervent commitment to go towards potentially deadly contagion, to treat patients with Covid-19.    

There are metaphors everywhere when we talk about what is without a doubt a global health and economic crisis. Looking at the language we use in coaching and leadership conversations currently could offer important insight. What we say is no accident.

Discrimination, but not as we normally think of it

Notions of prejudice and bias are being turned upside down. Instead of social equality, the coronavirus context is creating new types of segregation. There are new categories of inclusion and exclusion.

There is now positive, institutionalised discrimination when it comes to education. For example, only children of key workers such as NHS staff and those involved in food and logistics, are allowed to go to school. ‘At risk’ children or those with a social worker are also welcomed.

Age related bias is a barrier many have been keen to break down, especially in terms of employment opportunity, and not just in the coronavirus context. Separating themselves from beloved grandchildren, many of the over 70s have been told to dive into deep isolation. Some will quarantine for three weeks, others for three months.

All around the world, we are asserting borders and inserting barriers. Turning us from a system into a set of individual component parts. Think of planets orbiting solo.

There is much reframing going on, at a macro but also micro level. Over the top hand washing is currently seen as a desirable, appropriate behaviour, rather than obsessive compulsive. Equality and inclusion is being temporarily redefined. Consider Freud's concept of 'other'. There are those who are allowed out and those who must stay at home. Then there’s the reverse – those who would feel safer staying at home, but as key workers must break the lock down to serve on the front-line of this pandemic, be that in a hospital or a supermarket.

So let’s look closely at the words we are using. Notice what’s new in our lexicon, and what is being redefined in terms of its normal meaning compared to the meaning an expression might have in the Covid-19 context. You might like to explore some of these words with clients. Or pick up on their language, live in-the-moment to ask, not assume, the meaning it has for them.

Metaphor exploration word list

  • Boundaries
  • Borders
  • Barriers
  • Quarantine
  • Lockdown
  • Self-isolation
  • Gaining control
  • Connection
  • Physical connection
  • Virtual connection
  • Drive
  • Instinct
  • Community
  • Inclusion
  • Exclusion
  • Bias
  • Segregation
  • ‘Other’

Duty of care caveat: This article shares ideas and suggestions but does not represent official advice. Individuals need to make appropriate decisions in relation to their safety, health and psychological wellbeing, according to the latest medical and scientific knowledge in their locale and from government or the NHS.

Rachel Ellison book cover

Rachel Ellison MBE is a former BBC news reporter, now executive leadership coach. She was awarded an honorary doctorate for her book, Global Leadership & Coaching – flourishing under intense pressure at work. She takes a beneath-the-surface psychological approach to leadership challenges and events in the world around us.

Rachel is currently offering short-burst 30 minute virtual ‘emergency coaching’ packages, for leaders and those supporting them during the Covid-19 pandemic. Visit www.rachelellison.com

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