WRITE THROUGH THE CRISIS –
DISASTER? PANDEMIC? CRISIS? THE IMPORTANCE OF THE RIGHT WORD
by Samantha Shad
I had a workshop scheduled at Duke University during the week when the coronavirus turned into covid19 and the world went from interested to panicked.
The college administration sent out an email, and my students wrote me back of their disappointment that then, when the world was “isolating” them into their homes for a protracted period, they could not have the solace of a writing class. I was moved and, of course, had to write them back.
What was it we were all going through?
Was it a pandemic? Or a crisis? Or a disaster? What was the right word to express the moment and the larger resonance of this unusual time?
In our ordinary lives, it doesn’t make much of a difference which one we use. We’re in it. We need to get through it. Together. And alone. Somehow.
As writers, though, the choice is significant. We are, after all, wordaholics, and choosing the correct one is an occupational necessity. So what is the difference? And what difference does it make?
A pandemic is a disease that has spread over a large area and infected many people. It comes from the latin pandemos. Pan means “all” and demos means “people”. Originally, it referred to events which effected a whole region or all the people. Later, it was used to differentiate from an epidemic, which is a disease that is spread throughout the population of a small area.
On January 30th, 2020, when there were 9,000 cases and over 200 deaths from the virus, the World Health Organization declared the disease a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern. By March 11th, we had 114,000 cases and over 4300 deaths. That quantitative jump also represented a qualitatively different threat. The World Health Organization defines a pandemic as a “worldwide spread of a new disease.” The organization declared that we were in a pandemic. Within twenty-four hours, governments large and small were activating emergency plans. The application of the definition of “pandemic” altered behavior around the globe.
Are we in a pandemic? Yup. We can check of each of the boxes in the definition.
Is it a disaster? A disaster is “a happening that causes great harm or damage, a calamity.” It is derived from the Middle French desastre and the Italian disastro. Dis means ill or bad, astron means star, and the roots together define star-crossed, It’s an astrologically unlucky star or bad sign. Are we in a disaster? Many, many people are already sick, the number of dead and dying grows by the minute, and failing economies are causing wide spread loss. We check all the boxes. We’re in a disaster.
Is it a crisis? The standard definition today is “a decisive time or a time of great danger.” Every day we post charts of the spread of the disease. It is certainly a decisive time, as the line on the chart heads skyward. We project the number of expected deaths. Is it a crisis? Oh yes, we can check all the boxes again.
But which word is the most apt one?
“Crisis” is rich with a resonance the other choices simply don’t have. In political life, we’ve often heard the Rahm Emanual quote, “never waste a good crisis.” The accurate quote is “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.” Emanual’s meaning has an activist’s bent. To him, a crisis presents an opportunity to do something you would not otherwise pursue. It evokes a moment of possibility.
“Crisis” comes from the Greek krisis meaning “a turning point in a disease, that change which indicates recovery or death.” It originated not in politics, but in medicine. Hippocrates, author of the oath, and Galen, author of the original medical textbook, spoke of a crisis as the tipping point or moment when we either die or heal. A crisis is not just something bad, but the fulcrum of change.
Whether styled a pandemic, a disaster, or a crisis, we have a pile of challenges in front of us. How do we choose to frame it? Yes, it’s a pandemic because it is a worldwide spread of a new disease. It’s a disaster because we anticipate great harm. But the right word, the descriptor of choice, is that we are in a crisis.
What do we individuals do in our socially isolated homes? Do we watch endless repetitive Netflix movies? Do we eat through our vast supply of stockpiled beans and lentils? Or do we see it as a tipping point, when rather than die, we can grow.
I call it a crisis. It is a moment when change is afoot. We can choose not to die but to heal. Each of us, writers all, can use this moment of solitude full of time for investigation and self reflection, to write through the crisis.
We can journal, write songs, start novels, send letters, and write through the crisis to our better selves and our better future.
We’re in a crisis. Let’s use it. Let’s write through the crisis.