What pandemic can teach us about democracy
It’s been nearly two years since I’ve last posted. A lot has happened since then—personally and professionally for me, of course, but that’s not interesting or important right now. What’s important is what has been happening in the world.
Amid this change, one thing has remained constant: words, and the many ways we use them to reflect, register, and even revolutionize reality.
I am deeply saddened and troubled by the tremendous loss of life and livelihood from the COVID-19 pandemic and, as attorney Benjamin Crump powerfully put it during the memorial service for George Floyd, the “pandemic of racism and discrimination” that has inflicted so much violence on Black people.
These events are all the more disturbing when we account for the fact that COVID-19 has disproportionately affected the lives and jobs of people of color.
And this is not to mention that President Trump is more interested in his ego and inflaming hate than leadership. Some police officers have brutalized journalists and protestors. Other people have taken advantage of the crisis to vandalize and loot—or to spread disinformation to further divide an already highly polarized, anxious public.
But I am inspired by the tireless activity of healthcare and other essential workers and by the courageous activism of Black Lives Matter, especially as it is led by diverse youth all around the world.
“All around the world”—this, in its way, is what a central word for our time means: pandemic.
Where does pandemic come from?
The word pandemic is first recorded in English in the mid-1600s. Early on, pandemic was an adjective meaning “general” or “universal,” used especially to characterize various negative trends as “widespread” in a society, just as we refer, for example, to “pandemic racism” today.
Just a smidge later in the mid-1600s we get evidence for pandemic in its current medical sense, describing a disease that affects a large area. Using pandemic as a noun for such a disease dates back to at least the early 1800s. Today, we use pandemic specifically to refer to a global epidemic.
The related forms pandemial and pandemical, both used with the same sense as the medical pandemic, are slightly older than our focal word. Pandemial is attested in the mid-1500s; pandemical, in the early 1600s.
The word pandemic comes from the Greek πάνδημος (pándēmos), meaning “of or belonging to the people; public, common.” This adjective was also attested in medical contexts in Hellenistic Greek (ca. 300–30 BC). Latin borrowed pándēmos as pandēmus, and used it in reference to diseases by the 300s AD.
The Greek pándēmos joins pan-, a combining form meaning “all” (see my old post on panic for much more information) and dêmos, meaning “people.”
Dêmos also ultimately forms the terms epidemic and endemic, and appears in a recent coinage that gives a much needed name for the metaphorical diseases of misinformation and disinformation so pervasive in our culture: infodemic.
Now, one word that may not immediately jump out that derives from that same dêmos? Democracy, literally “government by the people.”
Common roots, common causes
All around the world, the coronavirus pandemic has affected all of us in some way—though its hardships have been most keenly felt by people of color, many of whom, at the same time, are leading transformative and increasingly large, global, mask-wearing protests against police brutality and racism.
In the midst of the pandemic of COVID-19, of economic distress, of violence against Black people, we are witnessing, on a scale like never before, an exercise of the rights at the core of an American democracy that seems, under Trump, to be tottering towards autocracy: “the right of the people to peaceably assemble.”
Critical to the protests are those other fundamental rights afforded us, guaranteed to us, in the First Amendment of the US Constitution: freedom of press and speech. The right to petition the government for a redress of grievances is helping to spur government action against police violence and systemic racism. And the freedom of religion? It’s hard not to see the ways in which this bedrock right is reflected in the diversity of protestors.
And yet as I write this, I need to acknowledge my own privilege. I’m a cis white male. I’m fully employed with healthcare. I’m college-educated without debt. I’m healthy and able to work from home. Often—and I know this is absolutely true for many others who enjoy my same privilege—it feels like the paired pandemics of COVID-19 and racism are just unfolding around us as we encounter them on social media, TV, and online news in the (admittedly comfortable) bubble of our everyday lives, where the biggest concern can seem like navigating grocery store aisles or the biggest complaint is when things will get back to “normal.”
But that “normal,” as has been so urgently exposed by the pandemics of 2020, was not a good and just normal for everyone. And democracy is essential to helping to change that.
Neither on the frontlines of healthcare nor protests, I, like many others, am grappling with how I can help effect change. But I hope that, in some way, I can appeal to the conscience of those who are conflicted—or complicit.
Donate, if you can. Vote. Listen. Speak out against racism. Dispel disinformation. Support healthcare for everyone. Support expanding the access to voting. Nourish democracy. Value Black lives—they matter. And keep up all these things when COVID-19 and protests are no longer at the top of the news.
Only when the lives of the oppressed and marginalized matter will we truly achieve a better society for pan demos—all people.