How COVID changed the way we communicate

July 15, 2022


In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic drastically altered the lives of people around the world, and according to professors from the University of Richmond, it quickly introduced a new way of communicating with one another.

“The dramatic and sudden shift to synchronous online video formats like Zoom paradoxically made many people feel both connected and isolated,” said Elizabeth Outka, an English professor and an expert on pandemic literature. “Experts kept emphasizing that we should think of ‘physical-distancing’ rather than ‘social-distancing,’ but in fact, it often seemed that taking out the physical part also emptied much of the social part.”

The challenges COVID presented to communication inspired Kasongo Kapanga, chair of the department of languages, literatures, and cultures, to ask his fellow language experts this question: How has COVID-19 changed the way we speak to one another? It culminated in a Languages of Covid Symposium on campus this spring, featuring scholars from all over the world.

COVID highlights both the importance of communication and its fragility.
headshot of Elizabeth Outka
Elizabeth Outka

Professor of English

“The COVID-19 pandemic touched all aspects of our societies in such a short time,” Kapanga said. “Language is the conveyer belt of culture, and it was the main instrument that described, expressed, and translated what the world was experiencing.”

The symposium, organized by Kapanga, English language learning director Leslie Bohon-Atkinson, Chinese studies professor Gengsong Gao, and film studies professor Sonja Bertucci, brought together professors from across the globe to share research and insights. One presentation put a spotlight on how vulnerable the world is when social media is the primary form of communicating. For example, the Philippines had one of the world’s longest lockdowns, yet the government never used the specific word “lockdown.” This caused false information to spread about the severity of the COVID-19 virus in the country and case numbers to rise.

Another presentation explored how the word COVID has become so prevalent in our vocabulary that it begins to lose its meaning, which has caused people around the world to take the pandemic, and other global diseases, less seriously.

Outka moderated a panel about the pandemic’s effects on life and politics.

“COVID highlights both the importance of communication and its fragility,” Outka said. “The most effective forms of communication may still — as we see every day — convey inaccurate information and mislead.”

The two-day symposium also included a preview performance of Standing Together, Six Feet Apart, a new play from UR’s theatre department, two screenings of COVID-era films, and speakers from the biology and health studies departments.