As the copy editor of this general-interest magazine, I’ve read a lot of nonfiction about life under lockdown. One writer prophesied the death of the shopping mall. Another noted the improved air quality. Others have navigated the interpersonal novelties of lockdown remote working, lockdown co-living, lockdown dating, and lockdown parenting. But, when each of them used that word, what did they mean?

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Many magazines have a house dictionary they fall back on for matters of semantic uncertainty. At The Walrus, we use a large, well-worn copy of the second-edition Canadian Oxford Dictionary, from 2004. The physicality of this resource is largely the point: for a copy editor, consistency is a virtue, and what words mean in this dictionary does not change. The downside of a printed dictionary is that it’s soon out of date. The COD’s solitary definition for lockdown is of little help: “the confining of prisoners to their cells, esp. to gain control during a riot etc.”

Online, the Oxford English Dictionary is more expansive, including examples of a word’s use going back hundreds of years. It charts the journey from lockdown: a strip of wood for fastening together logs in the construction of a raft (circa 1832), through the prison definition, to lockdown: “More generally: a state of isolation, containment, or restricted access, usually instituted for security purposes or as a public health measure; the imposition of this state.” Another recent definition was put forward last November, when Collins Dictionary named lockdown its word of the year: “the imposition of stringent restrictions on travel, social interaction, and access to public spaces.” Whoever is choosing them, words of the year tend to be both topical and in some sense new. (Collins’s 2019 pick was climate strike.) Lockdown’s topicality in 2020 was apparent. Its newness was more complex.

In February 2021, in the midst of a year-old global pandemic, what is a lockdown? Yes, it’s “a state of isolation, containment, or restricted access,” but what does that mean, specifically, to the daily lives of those living under one? As part of its word-of-the-year announcement, Collins claimed the term “encapsulates the shared experience of billions of people” during COVID-19. For Wuhan’s lockdown, travel into and out of the city of at least 9 million was completely shut down. For Azerbaijan’s, residents of major cities had to receive permission to leave their homes via a government text-messaging system. In Ontario, a recent inspection blitz found that only 59 percent of big-box retailers, like Walmart, which have been allowed to remain open throughout the pandemic, were adhering to public health measures such as requiring everyone to wear masks and keep their distance. Over the holidays, thousands of flights left Canada, several carrying federal and provincial politicians. How much of the lockdown experience are we actually sharing and how much are we pretending to?

There’s nothing wrong, or even unusual, about a word acquiring additional shades of meaning as it is used by different people in different contexts over time. But stretch a term too far, to mean too many new things, some of which differ significantly from one another, and you jeopardize its power to unambiguously mean anything. At stake here is far more than the hollowing out of a once useful term—as COVID-19 continues to spread across North America, it has become painfully clear that the measures many of our governments have taken aren’t enough. In the context of public health during a raging pandemic, poor communication isn’t just a pet peeve for copy editors: it’s killing people.

Languages are democratic in the best, most unruly sense, and semantic shifts are a good illustration of this fact: they are collective efforts, impossible to force on a population without the implied consent of voluntary uptake. Something similar could be said of pandemic lockdowns. But, while language is democratic, lockdowns are not. They are decrees. So another way to arrive at a definition may be to look at how those who wield the term’s power understand it.

In a report last November, Ontario’s public health authority investigated the scope and effectiveness of lockdown measures implemented in the first wave of COVID-19 (which occurred roughly in March of that year). The report lists elements of many lockdowns around the world, including school closures, restriction of gatherings, and curfews, before arriving at the key element that constitutes its working definition: “Lockdowns entail stay-at-home recommendations or orders, but the level of restriction accompanying those orders varies.”

In an effort to document lockdown’s variability, Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government has compiled the pandemic responses of over 180 national governments. Using data pulled from policy documents by over 400 volunteer researchers around the world, the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker quantifies each country’s efforts into a “stringency index,” between zero and 100, based on factors including school and workplace closure, restrictions on internal movement, and restrictions on international travel. “Years from now, when we’re trying to figure out what did and did not work during the pandemic,” says Emily Cameron-Blake, a research assistant on the tracker, “we’ll be able to see those patterns as they emerge.”

The pattern that has so far failed to emerge in the data is a link between a country’s stringency index and the impact of its lockdown measures in terms of cases and deaths, which Cameron-Blake acknowledges as one of the project’s biggest limitations. “We steer clear of making any of those correlations or conclusions,” she says. “We’re measuring the policy that’s being implemented, but it’s another thing entirely to measure the actual compliance with it or the enforcement of it.”

This delineation between effort and effect is necessary in part because the language of government policy is often a distorted reflection of reality. For instance, contributing to Canada’s score of 67.13 is the fact that federal and provincial governments have put certain border restrictions in place. (In the shorthand of the project’s interactive map, these restrictions amount to “border closure.”) Yet, according to the CBC, Canadian airlines operated more than 1,500 flights to eighteen popular vacation destinations between October and mid-January. Our pandemic response seems better characterized by the exceptions than by the rules.

Similarly overstated is Canada’s policy of workplace closures, which the project summarizes as “require closing all but essential.” This is hardly the tracker’s fault: essential has been another semantic casualty of COVID-19. In a January Twitter thread, University of Ottawa associate professor of family medicine Yoni Freedhoff invited Ontarians to anonymously share their experiences in “essential” workplaces. Over 100 people responded, and Freedhoff shared dozens of scenarios in which people were required to show up in person for work they considered nonessential (several chimed in about the film industry, which was exempted from the province’s recent stay-at-home order). Worse still, many alleged that their employers weren’t properly protecting them. This helps explain why, in December, the Globe and Mail reported that workplaces had surpassed long-term-care facilities as viral hot spots, responsible for 30 percent of all active outbreaks in Ontario and 40 percent in Quebec.

What is Oxford’s government tracker measuring, then, when it measures stringency? Less what a country is doing or the effects of what it’s doing than what it says it’s doing. The biggest limitation of a project that tracks government responses according to those governments seems to be a faith in the words—essential, closure, lockdown—a faith that, so let it be written, so let it be done. Measured in this way, stringency is no indication of how successful a lockdown will be. The United States, after all, scores a respectable 71.76 despite having mounted arguably the worst pandemic response of any country in the world and, consequentially, having suffered by far the most cases and deaths—over 26 million and 464,000, respectively, and counting.

It is especially difficult to concretely define the language used by those in positions of power when we’ve become inured to their empty talk. Meaningless sloganeering has long been a pillar of politics, and in the social media age, buzzwordy statements proliferate. Surveys attest to the downstream effects this can have: this year’s annual Edelman Trust Barometer report found that, since last May, Canadians’ trust in the government “to do what is right” has fallen by 11 percent. We tend to take what our leaders tell us at something less than face value, and they may well mean it that way. It’s never clearer than in a state of emergency how dangerous this can be.

The early days of COVID-19 exhibited startling failures of communication. Canada’s chief public health officer assured us that the virus “is going to be rare,” attempting to soothe public anxieties rather than steel Canadians for a worst-case scenario. Around the world, public health authorities, who would later plead that people wear masks, initially advised against them, explaining that there was little evidence of their effectiveness. As suggested in The Lancet last March, the lukewarm mask stance may have had less to do with questions about how well they worked and more to do with preserving supply for health care settings—certainly a rational concern, but worth misleading millions? Rather than insisting that the general population didn’t need masks while stockpiling them for priority use, our leaders might have put out guidelines on how to make our own. Instead, concerns were raised about homemade masks on the grounds that exceptionally shoddy ones could potentially increase the risk of transmission. The lack of trust, it seems, goes both ways.

Still, the first-wave lockdown saw Canadians’ trust in government increase, at least as far as COVID-19 was concerned. The same early crisis energy that had people banging pots and pans each night in appreciation of front line workers contributed to generally high confidence in the work officials were doing across the country. The second wave, by contrast, has been met less enthusiastically, and fatigue is only partly to blame. In December, after urging the public to forgo holiday gatherings, more than a dozen elected representatives, political aides, and public health figures jetted off on international flights. Ontario finance minister Rod Phillips even appeared to schedule his social media posts to make it seem as if he was at home rather than vacationing in St. Barts. He later stepped down as finance minister over the uproar, and several other politicians also relinquished their appointments, but the damage was done. As the virus’s alarming resurgence over the winter attests, poor communication causes poor uptake.

Canadians generally adhered less to second-wave lockdown measures, with roughly a third of the population saying they would go ahead with holiday gatherings. This is concerning, especially considering that the second wave has been larger than the first, but it’s also understandable. There’s only so long people can live in a state of emergency before the attractions of normal life take over. If my MP can break lockdown for a sun-soaked vacation, why should I have to cancel Christmas dinner? Surveys in November found that Canadians were no less fearful of contracting the virus or contributing to its spread than they were in April. But constant vigilance takes a toll, and many are simply worn out.

A successful lockdown is a collective effort, but our lockdowns have weighed more heavily on some than on others. Last spring, a survey of the French population found that low-income respondents tended to view lockdown restrictions less favourably than did high-income respondents, and it seems unlikely that this divide is unique to France. After all, the economic fallout of lockdowns hits the poor harder than it does the rich. Many workers designated “essential” are also low income—a counterintuitive fact that points to a mistake in how we’ve organized society—and stay-at-home orders that exempt their work but not their leisure can seem oppressive. In the US, the Department of Health and Human Services reported that Hispanic communities benefit less from lockdowns because many of their members are part of the front line workforce. The report also noted that, for Hispanic people, hospitalization and death rates associated with COVID-19 are 4.6 times higher than for white Americans.

Public attitudes toward lockdowns are a key factor because enforcement is virtually impossible without harming the people a lockdown is meant to protect. Imprisonment is out of the question if the goal is to stop the virus, which has broken out across the country in prisons ill equipped to contain its spread. And fines only further impoverish a population in an uncertain economy. Of course, this hasn’t stopped law enforcement from using lockdowns as yet another cudgel: in Montreal—where, between 2012 and 2019, police issued nearly 40 percent of all fines to people experiencing homelessness—activists called on law enforcement to stop targeting unhoused people for stay-at-home order and curfew violations. (Quebec’s Superior Court later made homeless people exempt from the province’s curfew.) A therapist at the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal told the CBC of a client who, when issued a fine they couldn’t pay for breaking a rule they couldn’t follow, couldn’t help but laugh.

The best definition I can offer, then, is lockdown: a failure of imagination. The same process of metaphoric extension that brought the term from prison to our daily lives offered so many missed opportunities. It could have evoked a global common enemy, a fight we’re truly all in together, a war effort without the chauvinistic hangover. Instead, we get locked down. More hardship for those who always endure more hardship, loopholes for those who always get loopholes, hollow proclamations from the same ever-spouting source. None of which should obscure the fact that lockdowns have saved many lives. Defined differently, they might have saved more.

Jonah Brunet
Jonah Brunet is a writer and editor based in Toronto and a former copy editor of The Walrus. Apart from The Walrus, he has worked with Toronto Life, This Magazine, the Toronto Star, and Véhicule Press.