From danger to destination: changes in the language of endemic disease during the COVID-19 pandemic

Brigitte Nerlich, Rusi Jaspal

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


At the beginning of 2022, the word ‘endemic’ became a buzzword, especially in the UK and the USA, and a kernel for the formation of novel social representations of the COVID-19 pandemic. The word normally refers to a disease which is continuously present, whose incidence is relatively stable and is maintained at a baseline level in any given locality. Over time, ‘endemic’ migrated from scientific discourse into political discourse, where it was mainly used to argue that the pandemic was over and people now had to learn to ‘live with’ the virus. In this article, we examine the emerging meanings, images and social representations of the term ‘endemic’ in English language news between 1 March 2020 and 18 January 2022. We observe a change over time, from the representation of ‘endemic’ as something dangerous and to be avoided to something desirable and to be aspired to. This shift was facilitated by anchoring COVID-19, especially its variant Omicron, to ‘just like the flu’ and by objectifying it through metaphors depicting a path or journey to normality. However, the new language of hope and aspiration did not go entirely unchallenged. Our analysis suggests that two competing polemic social representations emerged: one of endemicity as hope and aspiration and the other focusing on misguided optimism. We discuss these findings in the context of emerging polarisations in beliefs about the pandemic, politics and disease management.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbermedhum-2022-012433
Pages (from-to)668-677
Number of pages10
JournalMedical Humanities
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2 Jun 2023


  • COVID-19
  • medical humanities
  • metaphor


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