July 25, 2021, by Brigitte Nerlich

Covid, cowering and cowardice

We all remember Boris Johnson saying in March 2020 that we should take covid on the chin, followed by him saying in April that year that Covid was an invisible mugger that one should wrestle to the floor.

This metaphorical framing of the virus as a physical assailant and of those having to deal with the virus as bravely fighting back, has now been reinforced by our new health secretary Sajid Javid, who had recovered from Covid, saying that one shouldn’t cower from the virus. His intention was to persuade more people get the vaccine, but words matter. What he actually did by using the word ‘cower’ was insult all those who, unlike him, have died from the virus and those living in fear of this happening to them because they are, for example, immunosuppressed. (Just after writing this. it was reported that Javid has apologised for his remarks, but still…)

What does ‘cower’ mean and what other meanings are associated with this word? The etymology is quite hazy, but as the Oxford English Dictionary says, the word is “perhaps of Norse derivation: compare Icelandic kúra to sleep, doze, Swedish kura, Danish kure, to squat; also modern German kauern to cower, of which the antecedents are unknown.” It nowadays means “To stand or squat in a bent position; to bend with the knees and back; to crouch, esp. for shelter, from danger, or in timidity.”

The word cower therefore evokes the concepts of coward and cowardice (which have quite a different etymology). The meaning of ‘coward’ is defined as “A reproachful designation for one who displays ignoble fear or want of courage in the face of danger, pain, or difficulty; an ignobly faint-hearted or pusillanimous person.”

As one tweeter said: “So, after all this time, it turns out that the key to avoid dying from Covid-19 was just to be really, really brave”. And, as quoted in a Guardian article, “Jo Goodman, the co-founder of Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, said Javid’s ‘comments are deeply insensitive on a number of levels’. ‘Not only are they hurtful to bereaved families, implying our loved ones were too cowardly to fight the virus, but they insult all those still doing their best to protect others from the devastation this horrific virus can bring,’ she said.” Cancer patients will know how this feels!

Javid’s remark reminded me of some comments made by Donald Trump after he recovered from Covid, “telling Americans, ‘Don’t be afraid of it,’ and saying that he felt ‘better than 20 years ago.’”

So, does this mean that being afraid of Covid and cowering away from it is a bad thing? I think not. Even with two vaccinations, break-through infections are more common than we thought and caution is still called for. The first rule when faced with a contagious disease is: try not to catch it! Is that cowering?

I can’t say it better than Larry, the Number 10 cat: “Javid thinks this makes him look strong, but it reveals that he is weak. People haven’t cowered; they have done their best to look after themselves and each other, which the government has repeatedly failed to do at the cost of 129,000 lives.”

When framing the handling of a pandemic as hand-to-hand combat, individual action and responsibility are foregrounded and government action and responsibility are backgrounded. If you frame pandemic management as ‘taking it on the chin’, ‘as wrestling somebody to the floor’, or as ‘not cowering away’, you hide the fact that pandemic management needs patient, collective and coordinated action at a large scale by a responsible government.

Image: Pixabay: https://pixabay.com/photos/arm-wrestling-bet-monochrome-sport-567950/




Posted in coronavirusinfectious diseasesLanguage