As Covid-19’s second wave breaks over most of the country, what language is being used to report on it?  As a linguist, I’ve been curious (some would say morbidly curious) to see whether the words we use to report on the virus have changed from those used during the first wave. 

After all, we all need something to startle us out of our Covid fatigue, and the news shows it.  In my database of the top articles from IOL, News24 and TimesLive’s daily morning email newsletters, there was a clear dip in mentions of Covid-19 from September to November as other news stories diverted our attention.  But in December, references to Covid-19 resurged along with the infection rate.

So what does second-wave Covid reporting look like?  

All journalism students know that their job is to cover the five Ws and H: who, what, when, where, why and how. The words associated with Covid-19 in December 2020’s news are split pretty neatly between three of these: what, who and when.

The “whats” describe threats and protections

The “whats” are the actions or happenings associated with the virus that would normally be described using verbs.  In December, “contract” was the one that was most closely associated with “Covid-19”.  Eswatini’s Prime Minister Ambrose Dlamini died “after contracting Covid-19”. In all other instances, this word appeared in the phrases “fear of contracting Covid-19” or “risk of contracting Covid-19”.  

This is the threat that everyone’s worried about.

Other “whats” amplify this threat further. The word “spike”, with its painful connotations, was used repeatedly to talk about increases in infections, firstly in Port Elizabeth, then the Western Cape and finally across the country.

The word “admissions” was used to quantify the threat in another way: increases in hospital admissions showed how the virus was again taking its toll on our healthcare system.  The Western Cape was reporting a 409% increase in Covid-19 admissions on 11 December already.

If that weren’t enough, the word “addition” was also closely associated with “Covid-19”, mostly in situations where one gloomy statistic was being added to another. In one case, it described “a second pandemic – an increase in alcohol-related trauma cases” anticipated by the Western Cape health department, another addition to the list of “pandemics” that were declared in 2020. 

Of course, this was before the government decreed a booze ban and extended curfew on 29 December, carefully timed to squelch New Year’s Eve parties and the alcohol-related trauma which all too frequently follows.

If these words describe the threat of Covid-19, two other “whats” describe what can be done to protect ourselves. 

The first, unsurprisingly, is “prevention”, which appeared in the phrase “Covid-19 prevention”. This is another action, “to prevent”, bundled up into a noun with “Covid-19” tacked on at the beginning and presented to readers as a black box. The effect is as if to say, “We all know by now how to prevent Covid-19; just go ahead and keep doing it!” The only trouble is that we wouldn’t be in this situation if more people were doing “Covid-19 prevention”. And so, as tiresome as they sometimes may seem, the endless repetitions of “Wash your hands!  Keep your distance! Stay home!” are still necessary, although new ways need to be found to communicate the message in ways that make people sit up and take notice.

The second protective action associated with “Covid-19” in December’s news was one the government won’t want to repeat: “grant”.  The South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry and Cosatu both called on the government to bring back economic relief measures such as the R350 special Covid-19 grant in the light of our return to level 3 lockdown. 

Who’s who

Moving from the “whats” to the “whos”, three rather surprising protagonists showed a close association with “Covid-19” in the news. The first was a name you have probably never heard of: Sister Lama Peega, a nurse from Carletonville who was interviewed in one TimesLive article. She spoke about her emotional and physical exhaustion, of burying colleagues who had passed away from the virus, and about how dedication to the oaths she took as a nurse and ubuntu have kept her motivated throughout the long months of the pandemic. Especially powerful is her statement that “health should be seen as a human right, not a commodity”. Reporting that gives frontline workers and Covid-19 sufferers a human face and a public voice is crucial in stirring us out of our complacency. We need to hear many more stories like this one.

The word to describe ordinary people that most closely associated with “Covid-19” was “citizens”. This is an interesting choice. Citizens have the right to government’s protection, as Health Minister Zweli Mkhize implied when he said after our first, belated payment for vaccines, “We convey our sincere gratitude to the Solidarity Fund for their unwavering support to government to ensure that no-one gets left behind as we seek to protect our most vulnerable citizens against the scourge of Covid-19.” 

The government would do well to remember its duty of protection and race to secure vaccines after seemingly having been caught napping on this task.

But citizens also have responsibilities. This was alluded to in an article in which a Life Healthcare private hospital regional manager, Johan Holder, “urged citizens to help all hospitals combat the virus by not neglecting to wear face masks, by following social distancing and proper hand hygiene practices.” 

It’s the same old message, but South Africans still need to keep up their side of the bargain.

The last interesting group of “whos” associated with Covid-19 in December was the ministerial advisory committee (MAC). Two South African diplomats who unsuccessfully sued to remain in their European host countries due to health concerns associated with flying to South Africa rejected the MAC’s advice that flying home was safe

The MAC has a chequered history. It was prominent in news coverage back in April; then in May, some MAC members such as Glenda Gray spoke out against the government’s lockdown regulations. In September, Mkhize suddenly disbanded and restructured the MAC.  Recently there have again been rumblings to the effect that the MAC is being silenced. It remains to be seen how much the government will listen to this body in the vaccine negotiations and pandemic ups and downs that are sure to come in 2021.

The “whens” lead with “amid”

The last ingredient of December’s second-wave Covid-19 reporting is the “when”, the things that are happening at the same time as the virus resurges. This comes to light through a close association between the word “amid” and “Covid-19” in the news. 

The South African diplomats who sued the government do not want to come home “amid the Covid-19 pandemic”. Experts, including Gray, warned those travelling during the festive season to keep to their prevention measures or else stay home “amid a second wave of infections”. 

The word “amid” is a good reminder that we all need to live our lives against the backdrop of this pandemic. We’ve seen that Covid-19 is dangerous to ignore, but at the same time it will not help our situation to be paralysed by fear. South Africans need to let the festive holidays refresh them, and then pick up their lives again as they go back to work for the new year. 

We don’t know how this year will go, when we’ll get the vaccine or how we’ll ride the waves of the pandemic. We all need to learn to live amid Covid-19 with a hope that transcends our present circumstances. 


Ian Siebörger

Ian Siebörger

Ian Siebörger is a senior lecturer in Linguistics at Rhodes University, specializing in discourse analysis, particularly the analysis of media and political discourses. His PhD, completed in 2018, is...

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