Reflections on COVID-19, a Death in the Family, and Language Policy

June 25, 2020
Priscilla Angela T. Cruz, PhD.
During the Enhanced Community Quarantine, an aunt of mine died. No, she didn’t die of COVID-19. Her kidneys had failed, but because of the fearfulness of the times, the pneumonia that had plagued her for months was considered to be COVID-19-related. Without a quick testing protocol, the hospital had no choice but to declare her a COVID-19 suspect. She died in the ICU. As there were COVID-19 patients all around, we could not be with her as she died. In her moment of extreme suffering—and I heard it was terrible—she had only the cold efficiency of hospital staff as company. We could not see her, attend to giving her last rights, hold her hand, or even see her body. The moment she died, they took her away. And all I had left of her were her slippers, which lay forgotten near the entrance of the hospital ER.
After her death, we had to busy ourselves with the bureaucracy of dying: forms to fill, bills to pay, documents to finalize. We had to move from one side of the hospital to another, and in this COVID-19 world, that meant we had to line up to fill up forms and get temperature checks before we could enter any new area. That took a lot of time as there were lines and staff were slow. Finally, we found our way to the records section where we faced an agonisingly long wait for my aunt’s death certificate to be released. When it was finally released, we found, to our dismay, an error which had to be changed. The doctor had used the pronoun him instead of her. To correct the error, we were told we had to go to the ER, find the doctor and ask him to change the document. Then, again, go through the lines, sign the forms, get temperature checks, and once again, enter the section of the hospital where the records room was. All this while potentially getting exposed to COVID-19 and dealing with grief. Thankfully, the staff agreed to help, so they managed to get the document changed but it was yet another agonisingly long wait.
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash
This article, though, is not about death. Rather, it is about language policies and practices which do not necessarily make our lives better or easier. Thanks to that erring pronoun, our ordeal was made that much longer. When fact is, that pronoun is only an error in English. The doctor who wrote the document was thinking in Filipino, which uses the more egalitarian siya rather than the gendered him/her. So to me, it was an error that meant nothing. We are a multilingual country so why do we insist on living our lives based on monolingual—English— language policies?
Grammar purists out there and people who insist on the purity of any one language need to start seeing these ideas for what they are: they aren’t about language. Rather, they’re about social class and power, where those who speak in a certain way are “above” those who don’t. Insisting on using English puts English speakers higher in a hierarchy of power. So, allowing our multilingual heritage to seep into our English lives is a whittling away at that power. Of course, language comes with other powers: money, status, and other forms of social inheritance which are passed on through English.
So what to do? The irony that I am writing this in English is not lost on me. I am not against English, neither am I against any language. What I think is necessary is for us to make spaces for the multilingual reality that we live in. For one thing, understanding that when languages come into contact with others, changes are inevitable. Standards of correctness, therefore, have to be examined in terms of what errors can possibly mean. In the case of my aunt’s death certificate, the error meant nothing! It was obvious the deceased was a woman. So, let’s not think of freezing rightness or wrongness based on language standards that should be changing. Rather, let’s consider whether our language standards actually empower us and help us do things with language.
I know all the arguments for English—it’s a global language, we need it to get rich—but seriously, we have had the same socio-economic problems even with English. So perhaps it is not such a great solution as we think.
Could our insistence on English be the cause for many of the problems we face today?


The views and opinions expressed in this note are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the School of Humanities and/or the Ateneo de Manila University.