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Language and Lockdowns

Reducing the policy discussion on COVID-19 lockdowns to a simple binary debate – yes or no – oversimplifies a complex problem. At least until a safe, effective vaccine becomes available, all countries need different forms of tailored, limited lockdowns and rules of behavior.

ITHACA – Our recent experience with COVID-19 and the word “lockdown” once again illustrates the power of language to influence our lives and well-being. The infinite variety of reality, and the finite number of words and phrases we have to describe it, creates an inescapable philosophical challenge to articulating policy. Adding to the challenge is our tendency to regard a person’s usage of certain words as a signal of their political ideology.

In managing the pandemic, much of the policy discussion has coalesced around lockdowns. But reducing the issue to a binary question (Should we lock down or not?), or even a linear one (How much should we lock down?), oversimplifies a complicated problem.

The binary tendency has been prominent in US President Donald Trump’s recent statements. At an Iowa campaign rally shortly before the presidential election, Trump claimed that, “The Biden plan will turn America into a prison state, locking you down.” He also tweeted that, “Biden wants to LOCKDOWN our Country, maybe for years. Crazy! There will be NO LOCKDOWNS.” Trump’s brazen politicization of the COVID-19 policy debate put left-wing groups on the defensive, because, unlike the president, they accepted the science and usually favored certain aspects of lockdowns.