Bubbles and Lockdown in Aotearoa New Zealand: The Language of Self-Isolation in #Covid19nz Tweets

Article Summary by Jessie Burnette and Maebh Long

In this paper, we explore two different ways that New Zealand Twitter users framed their experience of government COVID-19 measures during the first stage of the pandemic. When the first cases of COVID-19 were discovered in Aotearoa New Zealand during March 2020, the government quickly moved to eliminate community transmission of the virus through mandatory self-isolation. This led everyday citizens, ourselves included, to rapidly familiarize themselves with a range of new terms, such as lockdown—the state of (national) closure—and bubble—the household isolating together. These two terms—lockdown and bubble—are both metaphors of containment with previously established meanings that had now been expanded to contain new meanings specific to COVID-19. This led us to wonder: do language choices reflect and/or impact perception of government measures and, if so, in what ways? The short answer is, yes! Twitter users actively drew on the pre-existing connotations of the terms lockdown and bubble to frame their own experiences while in self-isolation.

Lockdown was discussed as a tough form of control exercised by authorities, reflecting its previous prison connotations. In contrast, the soft, positive connotations of the term bubble seemed to generate more positive, humorous tweets, as users framed household bubbles as flexible and under individual control. We were all, as one twitter user wrote, ‘Inside our bubble with our bubble mates’ – fragile spaces that nonetheless were associated with greater autonomy and the possibility of play. Though the seemingly restrictive range of lockdown made it a useful term for airing grievances, lockdown was more often used in neutral conversation and when sharing information. Alternatively, tweets containing bubble were overwhelming supportive of government measures: the whimsical connotations of bubble seem to have made it the perfect term to limit antilockdown sentiment. It enabled, to quote one user’s humorous approach, ‘very reasonabubble’ responses to pandemic stresses. When deciding how to phrase health policies, the words we use really do seem to matter.

Read the full article on the Medical Humanities journal website.


Portrait of Jessie BurnetteJessie Burnette is a student at the University of Waikato currently completing her master’s thesis in English. Jessie’s thesis examines the depictions and uses of fatigue in modernist literature, as well as the way fatigue is regularly overlooked in critical analysis. In 2022 she won the University of Waikato 3MT Masters Research Competition for her work. Her research is funded by a scholarship from Dr Maebh Long’s ‘Modern Immunity’ project, which is supported by the Marsden Fund. Jessie has previously published papers exploring the use of directives and metaphors in #Covid19NZ tweets in Medical Humanities and Journal of Pragmatics.

Portrait of Maebh LongMaebh Long is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Waikato. Her research focuses on modernist literature and the medical humanities. Maebh is currently leading a project, funded by the Royal Society of New Zealand, which examines the ways ‘immunity’ became a contagious metaphor in commercial and literary publishing during the early twentieth century. She is also the author of Assembling Flann O’Brien (2014), the editor of The Collected Letters of Flann O’Brien (2018) and co-editor of the Journal of Flann O’Brien Studies. Her work on Pacific literature includes New Oceania: Modernisms and Modernities in the Pacific, co-edited with Matthew Hayward, and she is currently completing a co-authored monograph on Pacific literature, Pacific universities, and modernism.

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