Sun | Nov 28, 2021

Audrey Hinchcliffe | COVID-19 public education: words matter

Published:Wednesday | April 21, 2021 | 12:10 AM
 Covid vaccine
Covid vaccine
Audrey Hinchcliffe
Audrey Hinchcliffe

With time on my hand, I may just produce a compendium of COVID-19 language. In the face of the coronavirus pandemic where there is overwhelming confusion, anxiety and fear, we look forward to hearing, in more simple terms, words that we can understand and be able to retain instruction and advice on the spread and control of the coronavirus.

Perhaps this is the root of non-compliance with protocols and scepticism about vaccines. In this regard, a whole new vocabulary is emerging as warnings and signals about coronavirus are overtaking the media and the airwaves. In my lifetime, and it is very long, I have never seen so many experts on medical care, healthcare, science and technology, systems and procedures. Talk to anyone, professional, laypersons, students and even scholars and you may hear that they are overwhelmed by information overload. One glaring example playing out is about the status of vaccination. This can defeat the purpose of information and education as people tune out. For example, what is a vaccination, immunisation, inoculation, variant, and mutant?

Information overload is coming from talking points on multiple measures at the same time, backed up sometimes by sign language. The means of communication on any subject must be designed to inform and educate, hence we must be mindful of the signals and meaning of the communication tools being used in the context of addressing COVID-19 and its related topics.

For the purpose of this article, my preferred definition of communication is taken from, which states, “communication is the process of passing information and understanding from one person to another”. In simple words , ”it is a process of transmitting and sharing ideas, opinions, facts, values, etc., from one person to another or one organisation to another”, and I repeat “in simple words”, and it is this observation that urges me to point out that words matter to reduce fear-based messaging on the disease – COVID-19 and now vaccines, the latter which has opened up mass confusion about brands, timing, who gets it and when, and where myths and misunderstandings abound.

I am not trying to teach communication, but just to say in listening to daily briefings on COVID-19, locally and abroad, if what is being presented at times is going straight over my head and I am a seasoned health professional, I wonder what is the effect and understanding of other listeners. Further, the context of the communication is also very important where we don’t end up believing in what was written on a T-shirt I had years ago, which was ‘If you can’t dazzle them with wit, then baffle them with B....S’. Let me be clear, that locally this is not necessarily my take, but in other jurisdictions either through stress, one-up-manship or plain insensitivity and ignorance, listeners to the B.S. it can be interpreted as policy direction on information, education and possibly for actions.

In the case of a presentation by the former president of the USA in a briefing, he misrepresented cleaning surfaces with UV light and chemical cleaning agents as what came across was his interpretation or understanding that the surface remedies for COVID-19 was worthy of trial for cleaning the lungs by ingestion or injection. This is communication gone awry and it is dangerous to life, health and well-being. I can only hope that listeners strongly rejected even the slightest suggestion that UV light and dangerous cleaning agents can be introduced into the body.

If not already on packaging, manufacturers must place the symbol ‘skull and crossbone’ for visual effect under ‘warning’. What was heard and what was interpreted and repeated confirms my point that WORDS MATTER – from cleaning surfaces with light and fluids to cleaning out the lungs by injection or ingestion. While this was plainly ridiculous, I worry that what was introduced for research would lead to a new era of medicines and beverages – WORDS MATTER. Just imagine mixologist of the world arising to treat COVID-19 by start making daiquiri with a dash of Lysol; a Dettol martini; Tide pod smoothie; a bleach spritzer; or going to the doctor for an injection of sanitiser with UV rays of light. God forbid, as already, in the USA, there was report by the governor of a state that calls were received enquiring about the use of light and chemicals. There were also reports of the increase in calls to Poison Control Centres as ingestion of harmful substances is taking place and even death being reported.

Other forms of communication which I personally find baffling is the use of certain words which are plainly unhelpful when intended to educate and inform. Set out below are some new words, and some not so new, which may be appropriate for scholars, and of course, those who are eager to hone their skills as wordsmith. However, to engage with the public in a time of crisis we need to simplify the language to enhance compliance with measures for control of the spread of the coronavirus which causes COVID-19.


First, let me start with PPE, which is personal protective equipment. This is simply protective clothing designed to protect the wearer’s body from injury or infection. It includes helmets, face shields, eyewear – glasses or goggles – mask of varying types, gowns, suits or coveralls, shoes or boots, gloves and other related body coverings. As one can imagine, we put these on, and we take them off very carefully without touching the outer parts which may have come in contact with the hazard – infections or harmful injury-causing materials. So, what then is ‘donning’ and ‘doffing?’ It is simply carefully putting on and taking off the protective clothing (or gear).


The pronunciation is a tongue-twister as sometimes I hear ‘coremobidity’. Why are we using it anyway? Just simply say where there is more than one heath disorder or sickness in the same person. I have diabetes, high blood pressure and arthritis, or I have lupus, asthma and cancer. Call diseases by their names. It is bad enough I am trying to understand the signs and symptoms that are making me sick, do I have COVID-19, the flu or any other respiratory ailment, and now you throw in underlining comorbidity?


Just say you are showing no sign of being sick. I can easily understand that.


Tell me to leave a space between me and other people. Is it the same or should we be also saying ‘physical distancing’? What is confusing is whether it is three feet or six feet. More recently watching TV, I heard “two metres or seven feet”.


Someone wrote to ask MMS that in the event of contagion, are we prepared to act and work? Immediately someone enquired, “what is this?” Why not simply ask if the disease starts spreading among the staff, can we provide replacement staff? The word contagion can send people running, just don’t use it.


Medical care vs healthcare has long been my pet peeve. Medical care is the treatment received from a medical doctor or health professional. On the other hand, healthcare is the organisation for the delivery and efforts to maintain and restore health and well-being, which includes medical care. My simple definition is it is a system which underpins the business enterprise – people, process and products (supply chain). It is like medicine meet hotel and hospitality services.

The tendency to use them interchangeably is widespread but clarity comes when there is an issue with outcomes there is a broad brush for healthcare, as medical care an element of healthcare is not challenged, the health system is.


Immunisation, inoculation, vaccination are often used synonymously but there are important differences between them. Here we go to end the confusion. Immunisation is making a person protected from infection, while inoculation is the process, and vaccination is injection (the medicine) for the immunisation.


Now here comes variant and mutant. “A variant (a noun) is a form or version of something that differs in some respect from other forms of the same thing or from a standard.” Simply stated, it’s a variation of the same thing.

Mutant (a verb), on the other hand, is simply a new form of something, and the related use as an adjective is mutation.

Clarity I hope, as words matter!

The point I am trying to make in the foregoing definitions is that COVID-19 has created a whole new vocabulary which for daily briefings and public education has to be meaningful to listeners. The background of literacy of the Jamaican population which captures over 84 per cent for male and 93 per cent for female should help to pitch communication at a level where education and information can be received, processed, understood and enhance compliance. However, the illiterate, semi-literate and ignorant must also get the message for COVID-19 prevention and control and to reduce fear, e.g., what COVID-19 is, the signs and symptoms, how it is spread, who is at risk and measures for slowing it down, prevention and treatment when someone gets sick. Good communication for public education is what will drive the push for acceptance and taking of the vaccine.

Kudos to the Government who is out front with briefings on these measures. But in the face of seemingly poor compliance with some measures, spread of the virus continues to escalate and community spread is in full flight. I believe part of the cause of the continued spread lies in concern for personal circumstances, for example, entertainment, a pay cheque, privileges and freedom to exercise one’s God-given rights. It is for these reasons persons hide their illness when known and some unknown as they have no symptoms and some openly defy accepting personal responsibility for controlling the spread of the virus. That is why I am of the view that what is being said, how it is being said should attract the interest of the listener, who in turn will understand his/her personal responsibility in the fight to control COVID-19 and acceptance of the vaccine.

Audrey Hinchcliffe is the CEO and founder of Manpower and Maintenance Services Ltd Group. Send feedback to or