Анализ лингвистических приемов, способствующих формированию страха по поводу COVID-19 (штамм омикрон) по материалам избранных англоязычных газет


Пандемическое распространение COVID-19 (штамм омикрон) затронуло людей во всем мире и все сферы жизни. Исследования, связанные с распространением COVID-19, привлекли много внимания, однако представленная работа сосредоточена на лингвистическом анализе текстов английских газет, что представляется малоизученным.

Цель исследования - анализ риторических приемов, таких как гипербола и метафора, которые используют в дискурсах английских газет при освещении хода эпидемического процесса COVID-19 (штамма омикрон) в качестве сильных средств эмоционального воздействия, способствующих распространению паники и страха. Оценено использование слов-усилителей и расплывчатости понятий в дискурсах английских газет, которые также способствуют усилению чувства страха у читателей.

Материал и методы. Отобраны 10 статей из 4 англоязычных газет: The Guardian, New York Times, China Daily и Dawn, опубликованные в 2020 и 2021 гг. Полученные данные были интерпретированы с помощью теоретического анализа путем кодификации возникающих дискурсивных тем.

Результаты. Показано, что выбор слов и дискурсивных практик в опубликованных газетных статьях, формировало дискурс страха, который в конечном итоге вызывал панику среди читателей и в обществе.

Заключение. Дискурс, использованный в газетных публикациях, играл значимую роль в формировании общественного восприятия распространения COVID-19 (штамм омикрон), вызывая страх перед пандемией. Сделан вывод, что во время пандемии COVID-19 большой объем информации, посвященный этой проблеме, в английских газетах создал паническую ситуацию в обществе.

Ключевые слова:COVID-19; омикрон; психическое заболевание; дискурс страха; дискурсивные практики

Финансирование. Исследование не имело спонсорской поддержки.

Конфликт интересов. Авторы заявляют об отсутствии конфликта интересов.

Вклад авторов. Концепция и дизайн - Салим А., Тарик У.; сбор и обработка материалов - Салим А.; обработка данных - Салим А., Тарик У.; написание текста - Салим А.; редактирование, утверждение окончательной версии статьи - Тарик У.; ответственность за целостность всех частей статьи - Салим А., Тарик У.

Для цитирования: Салим А., Тарик У. Анализ лингвистических приемов, способствующих формированию страха по поводу COVID-19 (штамм омикрон) по материалам избранных англоязычных газет // Инфекционные болезни: новости, мнения, обучение. 2024. Т. 13, № 1. С. 27-34. DOI: https://doi.org/10.33029/2305-3496-2024-13-1-27-34 (англ.)

Worldwide pandemic of Coronavirus (COVID-19) has caused a global health crisis with a huge number of infections and deaths [1]. At the same time, with the downfall of health, deaths and economic destruction, it has affected the socio-psychology of many people. In simple terms, socio-psychology relates to individual’s thoughts, emotions and behavior that are influenced by the actual presence or imagination of social factors [2]. Although the situation of COVID-19 lockdowns provided opportunities to families spending more time together as they were restricted to their homes [3], it has disturbed the physical and mental health of people. Also, the psychological issues have arisen such as fear, anxiety and sadness among ordinary people [4]. Firstly, it is important to understand Coronavirus and Omicron.

Coronavirus (COVID-19) belongs to the Coronaviridae family. With an electron microscope, it looks like a ring of spikes and made up of multiple spines that attack living cells. This virus can cause mild to severe flu such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV). Initially, in 1937, it was reportedly discovered in birds and then began transmitting to humans around the 1960s. It is further noted that it is found in various birds and animals including bats. In December 2019, it started again in Wuhan, China.

On January 31, 2020, it was declared as Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) by the World Health Organization (WHO). Later on, March 11, 2020, it was officially announced that COVID-19 is an international health pandemic [5-9]. It is also known as a global calamity that affected the worldwide community on a large scale. The pandemic disturbed the lives of people across the globe and had negative effects on the global economy in 2020. Approximately, during the two years of the pandemic, several cases of COVID-19, isolation, hospitalization and deaths were reported in the whole world [10].

Omicron, the variant of coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, was first reported to the WHO on November 24, 2021. It was first reported and identified by the Network for Genomics Surveillance in South Africa. It was further described that the spread of Omicron is very fast in contrast to the old COVID-19 variants. There are numerous things to know about this sub-variant such as, it is considered to be more transmissible than the other variants of COVID-19 [11]. It shows different kinds of mutations in the receptor binding domain (RBD) as well as in the N terminal domain (NTD) which is linked with the cell center of humans and evade immunity, and chances of infection are increased. As per health care professionals, people who take the vaccine against COVID-19 were almost saved from Omicron, but they need a booster dose to reduce the infection rate. Research published in medRxiv on December 12, 2021, claimed that the protection against Omicron is expected to be less as compared to the previous variants of COVID-19 and is correlated with a high risk of reinfection [12]. It was also reported that this variant spreads faster as compared to the SARS-CoV-2 virus and poses a threat globally and stream of infection cases [13].

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has spread all over the world, affecting boundaries all across the world [14]. Numerous precautionary measures like social distancing and mandatory use of face masks limited the participation of people in different activities. Initially, people underrated safety measures like hand washing, avoiding handshakes, social distancing, wearing a mask [15]. But later on, it was reported that many countries took safety precautions that helped to stop the transmittal of the virus [16]. Furthermore, such precautions and strict rules of social distancing disturbed religious gatherings in many countries. A huge number of cases were reported in Malaysia, which became infected during a religious gathering of over 16 000 believers from 30 countries.

Print and digital media played an important role in public health emergencies during the outbreak of COVID-19 [17]. Research shows that media can bring positive as well as negative affects to its audience [18]. It is considered as a powerful tool for organizing opinions and once an opinion is made, it is strengthened by the fear and anxiety. Although journalists make news on preventive measures and health awareness, they also create panic and disturbance among people by sensationalizing such sensitive issues. Studies suggest that isolation and quarantine can cause anger, anxiety, and fear [19-23]. During the pandemic, fear was the main emotional torture that many people experienced [24]. Fear is also known as ‘sociophobia’, well known to gear up the negativity among the audience as it uses different discourse structures to implant fear among the society. For instance, media used linguistic and non-linguistic terms to exaggerate the situation during the outbreak of COVID-19 and Omicron [25]. Spread of fear and anxiety through conscious and unconscious pathways affects mental health [24, 26]. Although human beings have a defensive system against threats [27], emotions that have negative effects get transmitted to humans. As a result, negative exposure creates anxiety and fear among them. For example, reports regarding the increase in death rate and the number of people who were infected by COVID-19 have negative impacts on people. In contrast to the people who recover from the viral infections or have mild signs, this negative broadcast of media news increases fear and negative emotions among the people.

COVID-19 and Omicron have changed the way people live, talk, think, and behave. The present study aims to explore the discourse of fear in the selected English-language newspapers i.e. The Guardian, The New York Times, China Daily and Dawn, during the time span from 2020 to 2021. This paper will be helpful for the global community to understand about the language that instigated fear of COVID-19 and Omicron. Through this research, people will be able to learn about the pandemic situation as well as the spread of fear through the use of English-language newspapers.

Material and methods

The present study follows a qualitative design as it is considered a best approach to grasp social responses to this pandemic situation. It helps to analyze the content of online newspaper articles to find how fear emerged through the use of English-language newspapers. This process allows us to capture and understand how people interpret illness and health [28]. This paper takes into consideration a detailed analysis of language used in newspaper articles and research articles on COVID-19 and Omicron that show how people face fear that arises because of the media during the pandemic.

For the fulfillment of the objective, the researchers have taken four newspapers from different countries, including China Daily from China, The Guardian from United Kingdom, The New York Times from the USA, and Dawn from Pakistan. The data was collected from several online newspaper articles.

Theoretical Framework of the study includes the conceptual underpinnings of Van Dijk’s Sociocognitive Approach (SCA). According to Van Dijk (as shown in figure), the cognitive interface plays a mediating role in interpreting discourse structures and social structures. Socio-cognitive discourse studies focus on combining discourse or text with social structures by uniting society and mental cognition. SCA not only clarifies the mental representations but also demonstrates that many structures of discourse itself are explained through the different cognitive ideas, most specifically notions like beliefs, values, and knowledge of participants. The political and social structures only affect text and talk by using the cognition of the users or readers. It is possible because members of society present social and discourse structures in their minds and relate them to one another before presenting in the actual situation of talk and text.

According to the SCA, the constructions or mental representations are applied by the brain, and this process of expression of ideas is analyzed in depth. The cognition process works on specific cognitive structures known as mental representations of all human thoughts, including beliefs, plans, ideologies, etc. They are all part of cognition. It is a multidisciplinary field in which different aspects are used for the analysis. The cognitive process controls all actions and interactions of humans with society.

There are two types of memory in the brain: one is short-term memory, in which all sudden decisions like plans, interpretation of different things, and production of actions take place; whereas, long-term memory holds the information regarding society or beliefs, which is stored in the mind and used over time when needed. In episodic memory, mental models are used to represent events or situations subjectively. When we hear or read about something continuously, we construct a model in our mind. When a person wants to produce a meaningful discourse, for instance, a news story or an article, he expresses that event or a situation through the use of a mental model that is built in his mind about that event. Mental models not only represent the situation with the help of discourse but are also present in terms of feelings, sounds, opinions, etc. As a result, various possible notions are used for mental representations [29].

For an effective interchange, the participants in a situation should understand the needs of the other. For example, the speakers must adjust their style and attitudes according to the receiver so that interaction must be influenced. Van Dijk said that the receiver does not need to interpret the same meaning as what the speaker has said. In interaction, the speaker and receiver both construct mental models through their cognition to decode each other’s messages [30].

Results and discussion

The spread of COVID-19 has affected social life and gave rise to the fear of death. Published discourse drew readers’ attention and created a sense of fear among them during COVID-19 [31, 32]. Inappropriate news causes deceptions, which are then based on the media’s interpretation of what they see and read in newspapers. Although journalists may use exaggeration and overstatement to make news reports more interesting, this can lead to delusion or even fake news [33] that creates panic and fear in a society.

The present study puts emphasize on the English language newspaper discourses; it is essential to pay attention to the diction in writing for sensitive topics like COVID-19 and Omicron. The choice of words or diction is more important as it is used to express an idea in order to achieve specific effectiveness which can affect emotions, behavior, and attitude of the reader(s). Through the use of specific language, the media tries to create irresistible and sensational content.

The study discusses different factors such as hyperboles, metaphors, intensifiers and vagueness in four different English newspapers’ discourses during the years of 2020 to 2021.

Hyperboles used in English newspapers’ discourses for COVID-19

As per oxford dictionary, the term hyperbole is used for the statements that are exaggerated or the “claims that are not meant to be taken literally”. The use of hyperbole is emphasized for its overstatement and redefines unnecessary material as important. The fear of COVID-19 is spread through the use of exaggerated language. Fear and hatred can be emphasized through the repeated use of exaggeration or hyperbole.

The present study shows that, through the use of hyperboles or intensifiers, in English newspapers overemphasized the spread of COVID-19 and its sub variants. The challenges of COVID-19 have been made very difficult through the use of rhetorical devices. In this study, the use of exaggeration while reporting on COVID-19 had a negative impact on people and provoked a great panic situation through discourse. As noted in The Guardian newspaper, “explosive increase” is used to exaggerate the number of reports due to the lockdown and other restrictions.

Another factor illustrates that COVID-19 is an “inevitable surge”. The use of this term in The Guardian newspaper overstated the domestic abuse as an unavoidable surge, which spread a layer of hopelessness among the domestic abuse victims because they do not make complaints until the lockdown ends. As stated in the Guardian newspaper, the use of exaggeration like “win the fight” also generates fear in a society because, in actuality, people do not fight against COVID-19 but they take precautions and avoid interaction with others by following social distancing. These exaggerated statements raise fear factors among people. Vaccines are considered a “wall of immunity” against COVID-19, which is again an exaggeration, but it gives hope to the people. The large number of intensifiers are used to emphasize the importance of COVID-19 like “more dangerous than 100 000 infections”, which emphasizes the rapid growth of the COVID-19 virus in the world and increases the fear because COVID-19 has turned so exaggerated that even ordinary people start speaking similar to what the media discourse is publishing in their newspapers to avoid the spread of the virus.

Moreover, explicit pictures of deceased people were published so that people follow precautionary measures like distancing and washing their hands but it resulted into creating restlessness and fear. Using tactical forms like hyperbolic language in the media to make announcements related to COVID-19 increase the fear of death. The phrase “unpredictable virus” was used to inform people about the virus.

In New York Times many of the hyperboles are used to exaggerate the statements for example: “hundreds of thousands”, “Millions of Americans”, “Millions of lost lives”, “summer of freedom”, or “virus free summer” from the COVID-19 virus. Complete list can also be seen in table 1.

Metaphors used in English newspapers’ discourses for COVID-19

A metaphor is a rhetorical device that explains an action in such a way that it does not provide literal meaning but helps in explaining the ideas. The use of metaphor is an effective technique to grab the attention of the reader and fill the reader’s mind with the opinions of newspapers.

The Guardian gave a new name to the virus, “invisible virus”, to explain the situation of the COVID-19 pandemic. On March 17, 2020, it also reported the speech of Boris Johnson (Prime Minister of United Kingdom during 2019-2022), who described COVID-19 as the “enemy” that can be “deadly”. The above metaphors are used to persuade people that there is something more serious which provokes fear in public. In this digital era, people start thinking, according to the news statement, that the virus is dreadful and unavoidable, this turns their concern into fear. The metaphor of fire is used by The Guardian newspaper in order to impose a two-week “firebreak”. The metaphor is used to provoke the public to follow social distancing. The use of the fire metaphor is exaggerated in COVID-19 because it spreads like a fire in the world and evokes strong emotions of fear among the public. Another name given to the virus is the “glittering virus”, which spreads all across the world Different metaphors are used to describe the COVID-19 pandemic, which also spread information related to COVID-19 and Omicron. These metaphors are used to persuade people that there is something serious and require urgent efforts to change behavior in order to save lives. A “global pandemic” is a metaphor used to describe COVID-19 as a worldwide spreading disease. Multiple businesses all over the world operated under the fear of a collapsing economy. COVID-19 appeared to be a nightmare for people all over the world, regardless of whether they were facing a health crisis, an economic downturn, or educational insecurity. As mentioned in The Guardian newspaper, COVID-19 is a “nightmare” for the people since they face certain crises, fear, and terrible situations amid COVID-19. Furthermore, as reported by the China Daily newspaper, “Long COVID” is used in terms to explain its long-term effects on human health because health institutes and the government are overwhelmed with the cure and prevention of viruses since people show ongoing long-term symptoms. In addition, the “waves of COVID-19 pandemic” are the major source of unreliability. Moreover, as mentioned in Dawn newspaper “battle vaccine hesitancy”, this metaphor explained the nervousness of people regarding vaccine since people were not giving importance to the vaccines. In actuality, officials were not battling with the public since they start campaigns for awareness related to vaccines. Complete list can also be seen in table 2.

Vagueness used in English newspapers’ discourses for COVID-19

Because COVID-19 is so widely disseminated, it is necessary to provide genuine and valid information in public forums around the world. As mentioned in various newspapers, there were countless unclear statements, which not only spread fear but also provoke uncertainty. As reported by The Guardian, activists and survivors have expressed concerns that the indirect nature of the news narration-relayed by a third party-obscures the original source of the information. This lack of clarity fosters uncertainty among the public, potentially leading to widespread panic and fear. Another vague statement: “The Catalan regional government said that calls to its helpline had risen”. This statement is not giving genuine information about the origin of the news because there are so many people in the Catalan government. If the news came directly from an authorized person, then it would reduce the public uncertainty and be considered valid information.

On February 15, 2020, the director-general of WHO said that “we are not just fighting against COVID-19, we are also fighting with an infodemic. He further said that we cannot escape from COVID-19 in this globalized world, but valid information is the key to effective precautionary measures against the virus of fear. Such types of news and statements spread negative emotions in society, resulting in fear and horrible situations because this type of news prompts people to use untrustworthy preventive care.

Hyperboles and intensifiers used in English newspapers’ discourses for Omicron

COVID and Omicron are known as “twin threats” as well as rise in cases was reported as “Tsunami of cases”. It gives birth to the fear in the public as well as the tsunami of mental health issues that are also expected during the surge of a pandemic. Chinese authorities closed all the seafood markets across the country and implemented other preventive strategies like avoiding handshakes and maintaining distance, etc.

Dawn reported Pakistan’s political leader, who labeled Omicron “inevitable”. Such linguistic terms encourage hopelessness among the public and the rate of mental illness rises, which affects health and changes in behavior, resulting in domestic violence. Because people think that they cannot save themselves from COVID-19, this creates a panic situation among citizens. An “evolving epidemic” is mentioned in Dawn newspaper, which raises public concern. Many other factors were described in the newspaper related to the Omicron, like it is known as “Global Risk” and “Global Travel”, which travel globally without any restrictions and affect the health of “millions of people”. The word “wreak havoc” is used to describe the destruction caused by the Omicron. COVID-19 is very contagious, wreaking havoc on the global economy by destroying the tourism industry. Other terms like “lethal Omicron” indicate that the work on Omicron is still in progress. Scientists are trying to find out how contagious is Omicron? This incomplete information gives rise to insecure feelings and provokes panic in society.

The use of hyperboles and intensifiers is very simple but it has a prominent impact on the situation, whether the emphasis is negative or positive. The overuse of the language for publishing news or broadcasting news has a negative impact on the people, which creates a panic situation among the people. WHO disclosed that there is a bulk of inappropriate and in accurate news in the media about COVID-19. As Omicron is more transmissible, it spreads rapidly and causes a “tsunami of cases”. This exaggeration is used to announce an alarming situation internationally so that people maintain their health and avoid isolation. Following the WHO’s recommendations, several governments implement stringent measures for the safety of their citizens based on Chinese strategies and previous health crises. Moreover, it is suggested that policymakers must give priority to preventive steps instead of giving rise to economic practices. Therefore, safety measures in the world also have an impact on the behavior of people regarding minimizing their social circle and avoiding unnecessary travel.

Modifiers or intensifiers are linguistic constituents that explicitly convey the actual value of the quality of the item they modify. Intensifiers are also used just like hyperbole, which emphasizes the number of deaths and infections. As explained in The New York Times, “too little of the world”, a “highly contagious” virus is spread very rapidly due to its contagious nature. Furthermore, other words like “more than 248 million confirmed cases”, “less likely to die”, and “nine times higher cases” give a clear explanation related to the number of infections and deaths. The spread of Omicron is ‘a submerged iceberg’ but the media representing the number of infections and deaths are not absolute. Complete list can also be seen in table 3.

Metaphors used in English newspapers’ discourses for Omicron

Metaphors provide hidden similarities between two things. In this analysis many metaphors were explored in The New York Times, such as “ladder like” to describe Omicron. It was stated that it is not as straight as other viruses like influenza, Ebola and COVID-19. It is also called as “a negligible threat”, considered more dangerous than COVID-19 therefore it is a negligible threat which added another to which people associated it with fear. Similarly, it was used as “lab leak” in China Daily and as “submerged iceberg” in Dawn for drawing similarities and pointing towards hype and panic. Complete list can also be seen in table 4.

Vagueness used in English newspapers’ discourses for Omicron

The COVID-19 has created unusual situations for people with upcoming long and short-term results for the individual and general public at large. This outbreak affects public at very large scale in different forms physically and behaviorally. After studying newspaper articles, it has been analyzed that the media spread mostly fraudulent or inappropriate information by giving warnings to the people on the name of government organizations, employees, activists, researchers, as well as scientists.

Media plays a crucial role in broadcasting the unreliable news which generate unrest in the society mostly regarding the COVID-19 and Omicron. Also, a number of vague statements were mentioned in the newspapers articles which do not refer any specific individual directly. Use of such vague statements encouraged negative emotions about the spread of COVID-19 and Omicron. For example, WHO stated that, “Reports from South Africa-” is not the accurate source of news but still people provide information by using these strategies so that people follow precautionary steps and save their lives. Uncertainty during Omicron is increased and challenged the logical thinking of individuals. It was considered that negative information spread faster. Invalid information, vague as well as one sided news directly affect the mental wellness.

In the present study, 10 articles were taken from newspapers which express the role of the media in publishing news related to pandemic. Different journalistic terms were used to exaggerate the situations and circumstances, like the metaphor “war” during the outbreak, considered as a narrative of the need to fight and win against COVID-19 and Omicron [34-43]. There are so many terms mentioned in the analysis which express how the media use discourse in order to outspread fear and anxiety in the global community.


The current study explores the ways in which newspapers have used language about the COVID-19 pandemic, that has also led to the emergence of the new variant of the virus called Omicron. It focuses on the language used to create a sense of fear or anxiety among newspaper readers. This research is significant because it aims to understand how fear is constructed and communicated in these discourses. The research involves analyzing news articles and editorials only in order to identify patterns in the language and narratives used to talk about the pandemic. It includes the use of alarmist language, sensationalist headlines or titles, or the selective reporting of certain types of information that increases fear among people of the society.

The present study is limited to micro-linguistic aspects, which were used to study the discourse of fear from English-language newspapers. The study suggests that state or government should take responsibility and provide authentic information to the public [44]. Although, important measures have been taken by authorities, further research can shed light on those steps, tips and tricks to avoid misinformation spread through any type of media and especially through hashtags on digital media must be explored [45].

Overall, the research topic seeks to shed light on the role that newspapers’ discourse plays in shaping public perceptions of COVID-19 and Omicron, and how this discourse may contribute to the creation of a culture of fear around the pandemic. The study further concludes that during the outburst of COVID-19 and Omicron, the high volume of information written in English newspapers created panic-inducing situation for people. This study revealed that a huge amount of misleading information has been produced by the printed media and stimulated fear among people for COVID-19 and Omicron.


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Горелов Александр Васильевич
Академик РАН, доктор медицинских наук, заведующий кафедрой инфекционных болезней и эпидемиологии НОИ «Высшая школа клинической медицины им. Н.А. Семашко» ФГБОУ ВО «Российский университет медицины» Минздрава России, профессор кафедры детских болезней Клинического института детского здоровья им. Н.Ф. Филатова ФГАОУ ВО Первый МГМУ им И.М. Сеченова Минздрава России (Сеченовский Университет), заместитель директора по научной работе ФБУН ЦНИИ Эпидемиологии Роспотребнадзора (Москва, Российская Федерация)

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