It seems fitting that for my first post for the year, (happy 2022, friends!), I look at how diabetes #LanguageMatters is, (once again), colliding headfirst with COVID communications. 

It’s the age of Omicron, and we are repeatedly, almost obsessively, reassured that this particular strain of concern of the virus we’re all completely sick of (and, for many, sick with) is mild. Mild. Mild. Mild. 

And all I can think about is how damaging that word has been in diabetes communications, and, it seems, it’s quite problematic in COVID circles too.

Mild suggests that something is inconsequential; that it is minor; that it is easily resolved. Mild doesn’t consider the emotional toll and worry people might be feeling about being exposed to a virus that is spreading like wildfire.  

When we talk about mild hypos in diabetes, we’re referring to those pesky hypos that are fixed with a few jellybeans and a couple of profanities. It’s a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am low that is done and dusted in a few minutes. It’s a quickie. 

Except anyone who lives with diabetes knows that is not necessarily the case. So-called mild hypos can be worrying and stressful and cause anxiety. They can impact on how people feel about their diabetes and confidence. 

Calling them mild has meant that these types of hypos are dismissed, and seen as something that, as well as being easily resolved, can be easily prevented. That’s not how hypos work, and framing them that way can lead to people with diabetes being blamed for not doing what they should have to prevent them, or that they are not something that needs attention.  

Talking about the effects of Omicron is important. It’s good to know that, in general, early results are showing that Omicron is causing less severe illness, despite being highly transmissible. But a mild dose of a serious virus that still has so little known about it isn’t unimportant. It may be less dangerous than previous strains, but it can still be serious. 

There is a flow on effect to defining Omicron as mild. It can mean that it’s not being taken seriously, and people are, perhaps, not being as cautious as they could be. Anti-vaxxers are using this definition as ammunition to further shape and spread their unhinged views, and ignore simple public health efforts, such as wearing a mask and maintaining physical distance. I know this group doesn’t need any help in pushing back against evidence-based measures that clearly help stop the spread of contagious diseases, but I’ve seen them bleat with delight ‘OmiCrOn iS mILd’ as part of their deranged rants, because that’s what they keep seeing and hearing. 

Sadly, calling something mild has led to lousy planning (some would say sheer incompetence) by the government and government agencies. It’s this planning that is needed to help people properly prepare and protect themselves and their community. 

I wonder if we were to ask people what their stress levels are like as they can’t access rapid antigen tests, or can’t afford to pay for them if, by some miracle where the planets have aligned, they find somewhere that has a hidden stock somewhere. And how they’re feeling as supermarket shelves are emptying, lines for PCR tests thread around (many) blocks, and their workplaces are needing to close because so many people are home from Omicron. 

I’m guessing if they were asked, the answer wouldn’t be ‘mildly stressed’. Nor would they necessarily rate the situation in which we find ourselves as ‘mildly inconvenient’.

Mild doesn’t mean insignificant. Anyone who waits for daily numbers and has seen hospitalisation, ICU and death rates climbing knows that. Families of people who are seriously ill, or who have died know that. People like me who have spent the last two years doing everything I can to protect myself because I’m so terrified about getting COVID know that.  

Communication around COVID has been a disaster from the beginning. And two years on, it hasn’t improved. Because here we are: less than two weeks into the new year, and about a month into a new variant and it’s as though we haven’t learnt a bloody thing about how and why words matter when speaking about health.