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  • Writer's pictureBelinda Grace

The Terminology behind the Coronavirus Crisis – Are we using the Words correctly?

What a time this has been: weeks of isolation that feel like months. While some are staying positive and celebrating the fact that we get to possibly relax more at home, rekindle creative hobbies and spend more time with loved ones (provided we don’t live alone), others may be experiencing cabin fever and a fear of losing their jobs, if they haven’t already. This unprecedented crisis affects all of us, in all countries, across all ages, genders and professions, albeit in different ways. Overall though, it seems as if the world agrees that we should do the best we can to mitigate the virus, i.e. take measures to “slow the spread of infection”. Trying to stay positive to see us through all of this is the best we can do for now, difficult as it may be.

The radio, TV, and, above all, social media have been – shall I say – supplying us with a variety of virus-related vocabulary that we simply accept and adopt, such as isolation, mitigation, epidemic, pandemic, social distancing, the list goes on. But what do these terms actually mean and are we using them correctly? Let’s have a closer look:

1. Isolation vs. Self-Isolation vs. Quarantine

Let’s start with the term isolation. According to the Random House Unabridged Dictionary-based website, isolation is the “complete separation from others of a person suffering contagious or infectious disease”. As we’ve been able to observe in the past few weeks, this term more often than not is used to describe one’s own decision to stay at home to minimise the risk of contracting the virus as well as not infecting others, especially the elderly and people with underlying medical conditions. The latter act would correctly be called self-isolation, i.e. the “voluntary” decision to stay home to avoid spreading or contracting a disease, in this case, COVID-19.

The related term quarantine refers to a “strict isolation imposed to prevent the spread of disease”, taking it a step further than isolation. An interesting side note here: Quarantine comes from the Italian word quarantina, referring to a “period of forty days” which was done in Venice in the “1300s in an effort to stave off the plague”.

Just a little bit of history repeating.

2. Epidemic vs. Pandemic

I personally was not quite aware of the difference between these two terms until I came across more medical-based news articles lately. Deriving from the Greek ‘epi’ (meaning ‘on’, ‘near’, ‘at’), an epidemic is “narrowed down to a region where the disease isn’t permanently prevalent” while the Greek prefix ‘pan’ (meaning ‘all’) as in pandemic refers to a disease that is spreading “across an entire country, continent or even world”, as is the case with the current type of coronavirus.

3. Social distancing vs. Physical distancing

Governments across the globe recently enforced social distancing, i.e. the act of keeping a physical distance of 2 metres/6 feet between people, thus, to avoid contamination through cough droplets or touching the same surfaces. When I came across the alternative term physical distancing, it became quite clear to me that this is what we actually mean when we say social distancing.

While we are asked to keep a physical distance to others, we couldn’t be more socially interconnected with the world around us at this time: Work staff are moving their in-person meetings to ‘Zoom’ conference calls instead, active societies are introducing ‘Skype’ co-working sessions or virtual pub quizzes, and while we can’t meet our friends for Friday happy hour drinks any longer, we can make use of apps such as ‘Houseparty’ to video chat and even play online Pictionary.

4. Disorder vs. Disease

While I don’t specialise in medical translations, I regularly do medical review jobs and often come across the German word Erkrankung (Engl. illness, disease) being falsely translated as disorder (Ger. Störung) when it should be disease. According to the World Health Organization, “to have a disease is conceptually very different from suffering from a disorder”. A disorder is defined as a “disruption of the disease to the normal or regular functions in the body or a part of the body.” An example for a disorder is arrhythmia, i.e. not a disease itself but rather an “abnormal heartbeat that occurs as a result of having cardiovascular disease”.

Despite all this seriousness going on in the world, I keep recalling my all-time favourite TV show, Scrubs: In “My Quarantine” (season 4 episode 16), main character JD suspects SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome, a type of coronavirus that occurred in the early 2000s) in a patient.

This causes an immediate and dramatic lockdown of Sacred Heart Hospital until a test for this premature diagnosis that was made half-jokingly luckily comes back negative.

To finish off this month’s blog, I would like to share a free online course provided by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (to be found at that talks about the current coronavirus which I found to be quite insightful.

Stay safe and happy!

Smiles all around,



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