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How COVID-19 Has Changed Our Vocabulary And Its Effect On Society

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Now here is something to ponder. Did you ever think about how the Covid-19 pandemic has unleashed a flood of words and phrases into our everyday language usage? At a time when our poor selves are trying to emerge from the year-long struggle for survival and are somehow coping up with our altered lifestyles. A closer look shows how the pandemic has created a flurry of words and idioms into our common parlance.

It is very hard to recall when was the last time that the English language got a great fillip out of a catastrophic global event. The exponential rise of the use of a few related words in such a short span of time is astonishing and overwhelming indeed. Even the Oxford dictionary had to twist their two decades of practice of quarterly updating their lexicon list and was obliged to include newer phrases within a month, in July 2020.

Little Known Scientific Terms In Every-Day Vocabulary

Words that were once obscure and unintelligible and until now were strictly regarded as scientific jargons to common masses, overnight became buzzwords. Medical terms like ‘social distancing’, ‘pandemic’, ‘quarantine’, ‘vaccine’ ‘inoculation’ are deeply integrated into the fabric of language today. We now not only know the terms such as ‘sanitization’, ‘containment zones’, ‘flattening the curve’, ‘self-isolation’, ‘contagion’, ‘comorbidity’, but it has given rise to a general systematic bend of discourse and discussion towards health matters.

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Medical and scientific terms have become a part of the basic vocabulary for everyone in the pandemic.

On a lighter note, the pandemic has made us sound like pseudo-scientists and medical professionals in the conversations we make. There has been a significant awakening of the scientific consciousness among people. There are a positive shift and greater uptake of healthcare and wellness practices even among people who bypassed the need to devote adequate time and focus on fitness, exercise, personal grooming, sleep, and importantly diet regimes.

The disease outbreak has so gripped our collective imagination that it has overcome the barriers of class, caste, race, gender, and multiple social identities to make us aware of our human and biological existence. If we were to look back in time, linguistic politics is very much at the heart of the struggle for separate statehoods in India and has time to time fanned up the dialogues on what must be the official language in the country. But surprisingly Covid-19 has diluted the linguistic divides and has unified the populace who are not hesitating to use English terms so fluidly in their expressions.

Unlike the words or rather abbreviations such as ‘ROFL’-Roll on the Floor Laughing, ‘YOLO’- You Only Live Once, ‘TTYL’-Talk To You Later and ‘BRB’- Be Right Back, that are popular and frequently used for communication among the millennials, and among the information technology (IT) professionals, the words associated with Covid-19 pandemic are equally and intensively used across all age groups. As the hunt for the Covid-19 medicines and vaccines advanced over the months, so did our vocabulary.

We are well versed with even the tongue-twisters ‘hydroxychloroquine’, ‘dexamethasone’, ‘AstraZeneca’, and it should not surprise us if in future spelling competitions (like SpellBee), kids are mouthing such difficult medical words with aplomb. The pandemic has definitely flared up the scientific temper among the children as young as in primary schools who are familiar with ‘Corona’, ‘Covishield’, ‘Covaxin’, ‘antigen’, ‘real-time polymerase chain reaction (RCT-PCR)’ and so on.

The Role Of Digital Revolution

Not that the world is witnessing a pandemic for the first time in its history of existence, but unlike the previous ones, this pandemic has occurred in a world enthralled by the digital revolution. Aided by information and communication technology (ICT) and primarily social media, notwithstanding our physical distancing mandates and being confined into our homes under ‘lockdown’, the world felt much closer with a click of a mouse or a tap on the phone.

zoom class
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The digital revolution has helped people stay connected in the pandemic.

As the virus spread progressively with migrating flows of people and globe-trotting travelers, we realized the existence of countries and islands we were pretty oblivious of. Additionally, the pandemic has managed to upturn the geopolitics of the world and has somewhat enhanced our knowledge of geography.

The dissemination of the previously existing words witnessed ‘superspreading’ and gained prominence as noted by lexicographers lately owing to this health emergency. This has been reflected in the change in the global advertising language (read jingles and brand mottos) since the disease outbreak. Greater emphasis is laid on corona-virus awareness through informative campaigns using terminologies such as ‘hand-washing, ‘face-masks, ‘personal protective equipment (PPE)’, ‘stay at home, leveraging on the consumer fear and safety precautions needs.

Social interactive gestures like the way we greet people have undergone sea-change as we now do a ‘namaste’ or an ‘elbow bump and have cautiously discarded a handshake, high-five, back-pats, and hug.  The English language has evolved and adapted rapidly across the world gaining the audience’s humor with the coining of new words such as, ‘covidiot’, ‘coronacation’, and ‘morona’.

Internet connectivity and digital devices allowed the academicians and researchers to be omnipresent; (read attend), the multitude of ‘webinars’, talks, and workshops which in the pre-Covid-19 era were humanely impossible to imagine. Who could deny that this public health event has catapulted an unparalleled magnitude of research in natural and social sciences and simultaneously has given food for thought to the creative people in arts and literature?

There has been a steady emergence of websites, online platforms, video-conferencing ‘apps’ (read web-based applications), ‘cloud calling’, ‘telemedicine software for connecting. Young children are learning ‘coding’ and have become tech-savvy and experts in navigating the digital world through ‘online teaching’.

In an era of hashtags and tweeting when it is easier to search up people sitting in remote corners of the world, the academic collaborations and chance of connecting with people across the continents for face-to-face teleconferencing meetings have been tremendous. But of course, we are also dealing with newer kinds of health scares such as ‘zoom fatigue’, as a result of too much screen time and digital onslaught. We are amidst an ‘infodemic’ and are been bombarded with information avalanche every minute.

The Questions Raised By The Pandemic

But viewing with an optimistic lens, this pandemic language has propagated a window for discussing difficult yet pertinent questions on gender, work, and power dynamics of marginalization across social sections. Terms like ‘work from home, ‘remote work’, have brought the conversations of ‘home-based work’ (self-employment) and ‘domestic work’ which are largely and ubiquitously performed by women and are gravely undervalued; out of the academic circles into the common narratives.

Moreover, we have woken up to the invaluable contribution made by the ‘frontline workers’ especially the ones in informal occupations (waste-pickers, sweepers, nurses, community health workers; Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) workers, street-vendors) in ‘contact tracing’, curbing the ‘community transmission’ and recognize their tireless efforts keeping the essential services alive during the lockdown. The astronomical rise of media reportage of domestic violence has surely made way into the public forums for addressing the human rights issue upfront.

In the last year, the world has been a spectator to an unprecedented socio-economic disruption and consequent extraordinary measures to ameliorate it. In the current phase of the global vaccination drive until we attain ‘herd immunity’ we have to adjust to the ‘new normal’ and remain in a ‘social bubble’.

Author Details– Dr. Sudeshna Roy has a PhD from JNU and she writes on health, livelihoods, gender, and urban issues.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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