The Language of Quarantine

Clarity, brevity and crafting the right story can save lives. You can call it content design, information architecture or simply good writing.

South Korea and the United States had their first confirmed cases of COVID-19 on the same day. One country is in crisis, the other has a firm handle on the pandemic. I wouldn’t claim that good writing alone explains the difference in outcomes in South Korea and the US, but it’s played a role.

The inability to communicate is why beaches are packed in Florida, Marti Gras went on and a large percentage of Americans still don’t seem to know what they need to do.

Of metaphors and maths

The early metaphors for COVID-19 lulled people into complacency. What’s the big deal about a bad cold or the flu?

It was even worse to throw numbers into the mix, comparing the seasonal flu’s 0.1% mortality rate to anything from 0.5% to 4% for corona virus.

The human brain doesn’t work with these types of numbers.

On the other hand, would you get on an airplane that crashes one time out of a hundred? The same numbers, but a different sense of risk.

Let’s try this instead:

The novel corona virus is highly contagious and causes a deadly pneumonia.

1 of 5 people with COVID-19 will need critical care in a hospital. We don’t have enough respirators for this many patients.

Had health officials been talking about corona virus like this from the start, more people in the US and Europe would have taken it seriously in January instead of March.

The attack of novel terms

The first curious phrase to emerge from this was social distancing. Huh?

How about:

Only leave home for necessities. Stay 6 feet away from people in public.

Social distancing works as a hash tag, but the messaging on what it actually entails was muddled.

Shelter in place is even more bizarre. This sounds like an imminent emergency. There’s a sense of urgency.

“There’s a tornado coming. Shelter in place!”


Get ready to stay home for the next two weeks. No need to panic, grocery stores will still be open.

This removes the immediate call to action — there’s no need to get a year’s supply of toilet paper. Stay home is easy understand, shelter in place not so much.

I take less issue with flatten the curve. Outside of context it doesn’t mean much, though. Why do we need to flatten the curve instead of going for herd immunity?

If we all get sick at once, there won’t be enough respirators for each of us.

One sentence removes two uncommon phrases and explains why the speed of the pandemic matters.

The role of writing

Let’s skip the delusions of grandeur, good writing isn’t going to save the world by itself.

Good writing does help medical authorities communicate information that could save lives.

The right metaphor helps the public understand risk without creating panic.

Let’s hope scientists and governments enlist writers to tell their story next time around.