Na Huang / Daily Nexus

To a still COVID-cautious student witnessing the rise in classroom illness as winter quarter unfolds, the recent updates to California’s Department of Public Health COVID-19  guidance seem to have come at a strange time. 

Hospitals across the country have responded to the recent influx of COVID-positive patients since December by reinstating mask mandates, yet the CDPH has determined that the right moment to forgo major isolation precautions in work and school environments — neither particularly known for their immaculate hygiene — is now. Rather than resulting in an already reduced isolation period, a positive test now means an infected employee is free to roam the workplace, “recommended” to wear a mask and — in rather subjective terms — “avoid contact” with high-risk individuals for a period of ten days. I’m not thrilled, to say the least. 

The reduction of isolation restrictions during one of the largest COVID-19 surges so far is upsetting enough, but reading about this development has fueled another source of my pandemic fury more: the misleading terminology used to describe the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

The words we use to talk about COVID are important. News media and corresponding journalistic style are meant to deliver information to an audience — their declared goal — in the most comprehensible way possible. That’s why I find it so disappointing to see an integral organization like the California Public Health Department neglect their duty to clarity. 

The word “avoid” in the CDPH’s statement is rather subjective — should asymptomatic employees wait for the next elevator or avoid an office floor completely? What about students, who may be coming to class infected in a crowded lecture hall with a select number of open seats? How can they possibly prioritize — or even care about given the anonymity of the setting — avoiding high-risk individuals as the guidelines suggest? 

We don’t all wear plaques around our necks identifying our varying disabilities or immunocompromised status. The Americans with Disabilities Act guarantees that such personal information need not be revealed to colleagues or supervisors in a workplace setting. In putting the onus of avoidance on the infected employee or student to steer clear of high-risk individuals, it seems that one of two things may happen, both leading to unfortunate situations. 

The infected person may not know of their colleagues’ high-risk status and subsequently infect them. Alternatively, high-risk employees may feel forced to reveal their disabilities to the workplace in an effort to protect their own health — a plea to compassion that the infected individual, likely indoctrinated with the media’s language around COVID-19 already, may fail to respect, which could result in a potentially dangerous infection regardless. 

A recommendation, as most protocols now phrase it, does little for compliance and a recommendation with such subjective language within it encourages even less. 

Terminology matters, in the same way that technical writers avoid jargon to explain a product’s function without confusion. COVID-19, once reported in this concise manner as news organizations scrambled to explain the who/what/why as quickly and completely as possible, has since gained coverage more in the vein of loosey-goosey opinion pieces than forthright information (Yes, I do see the irony). Much mainstream journalism has taken to the dominant ideology on COVID as a thing of the past, a disease whose dangerous impact is still debatable. Headlines are dominated by questions we’ve had the answers to for years now. “Do Masks Work?” “Is COVID Still a Thing?” Yes to both (obviously).

Granted, the current surge has ramped up much needed coverage on the reality of the continuing pandemic. Nevertheless, colloquial phrases diminishing the threat are still appearing in the media such as ‘Back during COVID’ and ‘In the middle of the pandemic’. How are they sure it was the middle? At the time of writing this article, the CDC’s COVID data stated as many as 2000 Americans are still dying of COVID-19 each week, not to mention the indeterminable yet unacceptably large sum of people suffering from Long COVID. Is that not, in the most basic sense of the definition, still a pandemic? 

In the chokehold of capitalism, a pandemic ceases to be one as soon as isolation is passé. Intrinsically motivated by consumerism, the media reflects this notion: travel articles advertise the ‘Ten Best Countries to Visit After COVID’. Concerts are in full swing: ‘Here’s How to Get Tickets to be Packed in Like Sardines in the Dead of Winter’. Media advertisements have been flooding us with COVID-denialist rhetoric for over a year now, and not for inexplicable reasons. If COVID-positive and COVID-cautious people stop spending money by limiting their crowd exposure, then the companies they would otherwise be funding lose money. 

The ideology is visible everywhere: brands that initially touted their COVID awareness for consumer support early in the pandemic have now abandoned it, removing nearly anything more than the less-inflammatory, blue surgical masks from their shelves. If these companies publicly encouraged the continued use of masks, implementation of other precautionary measures or so much as acknowledged the reality that COVID is still present and at an active high, then they could lose more support and money from a COVID-denialist customer base who shames those that tickle at their cognitive dissonance. 

These first few years of the pandemic have shown that by acknowledging the threat of COVID-19, capitalism cannot win — but when capitalism controls the media, a misrepresentation of information means we all lose. 

In the feedback loop between consumers, their suppliers and the media, even those who want to break away from the dominant ideology may find it difficult to do so. Publications that once dominated the growing canon of COVID-19 information are seemingly shrinking back, pumping out an occasional update on the science amidst a couple click-generative pieces that do more to confuse than inform. Headlines are supposed to hook indifferent readers’ attention. 

But, when reputable organizations publish titles questioning whether COVID vaccines are necessary, instead of foremost encouraging the distribution and uptake of them to add some protection against long-term illness, the headline and article’s impact risks fizzling into apathy. 

What is this saying about the media’s duty to inform? In a capitalist society that is threatened by a COVID-cautious public (now largely diminished), the role of the media has shifted: it is now ‘to confuse’. To complicate once straightforward guidance on proper precautions, treatments, and scientific evidence to the point that people — who are hesitant to resume their consumption of concerts, time spent in crowded areas and other capitalist endeavors for the purpose of individual and public health — may resign themselves to giving up and accepting the misused “new normal” completely. 

I see this working when I’m one of three students masked in a crowded lecture hall, attending a class on media criticism. We’re learning about this very phenomenon, but it doesn’t seem to get through, so saturated we are with the notion that COVID lies in the past. 

This isn’t to say that the CDPH’s decision to scale back isolation policies for asymptomatic and “mildly symptomatic” infections will result in an immediately disastrous impact. It is true that being able to return oneself to work and kids to school would ease the burden many single parents and underprivileged households carry when hit with COVID. Yet this is only a temporary solution to a much larger problem. The same communities that benefit briefly from the new guidelines are significantly more likely to encounter barriers in receiving treatment should they develop severe COVID symptoms or Long COVID.  Impoverished communities reliant on lower wage jobs are significantly underserved by health insurance and health care access, which COVID has only exacerbated. 

The rush back to work and school, while preventing working mothers from having to stay home and look after their COVID-positive children, could also disproportionately harm women, who are both at a higher risk of developing Long COVID should they be infected, and report feeling largely unsupported when speaking up in their workplaces — making it difficult to raise concerns as immunocompromised employees. The capitalist COVID ideology is prioritizing immediate gratification over long-term health, swiping the significance of these eventual repercussions away with terminology meant to minimize and guilt those who raise concerns. 

That said, as UCSB quietly adopts California’s altered isolation guidelines, I’ll be wearing my mask. Until the media fixes its language and gives us clear answers on the risks of repeated infections and Long COVID, I’ll keep wearing it. Language has power in coverage of the ongoing pandemic, but a media-literate audience has equal power to question its bias. Per the capitalist ideology, we live in a society of individualism — so let’s not accept collective ignorance. 

Phoebe Mitchem is practicing media literacy about COVID and thinks you should too.

A version of this article appeared on p. 16 of the February 15, 2024 print edition of the Daily Nexus.