Should we fight back against Covid's military metaphors?

Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a media briefing in Downing Street, London, on coronavirus

Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a media briefing in Downing Street, London, on coronavirus (Covid-19). Picture date: Monday July 12, 2021. - Credit: Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA Wire

So much of the pandemic has been described in terms of a 'war' against the virus. Communications expert DR ANDREAS MUSOLFF asks whether such language is helpful

Why do we speak and hear (and read) about the Covid-19 pandemic so much in terms of war?

In the media and in everyday parlance, patients, hospitals and whole nation states are 'fighting', 'battling' or 'attacking' the virus, doctors and nurses are 'serving at the frontline' and using tests and vaccines as 'ammunition' or 'weapons' of choice for the past 22 months.

It is, however, not the case that we have only war metaphors at our disposal to discuss Covid-19: other verbal images in the media speak of the pandemic as a 'fire' or as a manifestation of natural force - hence the counting of successive 'waves'.

And then there is a whole field of containment imagery to describe the counter-measures designed to stop the disease from spreading further: lockdowns, bubbles, cocoons, and circuit breakers, as well as tiers and traffic light systems of restrictions.

Out of this range of imagery it is the war-related metaphors that have attracted the most criticism.

They have been condemned for justifying the loss of democratic rights, for furthering nationalistic tendencies, as well as for encouraging fatalism about the pandemic death toll, e.g. by totting up figures of casualties.

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Some of these condemnations stand in the line of earlier critiques of uses of war metaphors in previous pronouncements on 'wars against drugs', or against cancer or poverty, none of which is known to have been concluded with some sort of a final victory.

Indeed, the scenario of a final victory that follows a decisive battle is itself one of the most problematic implications of war-metaphors, as it is unfitting for longstanding social and scientific problems that cannot be solved in one blow.

The ‘final victory’ promise raises false hopes, and its declaration just serves politicians to boast of a ‘mission accomplished’, like victorious generals.

Strictly speaking, however, such criticism concerns not the metaphor in principle but its use in specific circumstances. A harmless type of use is the routine description of a dangerous illness as an adversary that must be fought and beaten.

The website of the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospitals, for instance, currently states that they "are humbled that more than 400 medical students and retired NHS workers are already joining us in the fight against Covid-19".

This use of the word 'fight' as deployed here is clearly devoid of militaristic overtones or propagandistic implications.

Different from such a metaphor use is the elaboration of war metaphors for specific persuasive purposes.

One prominent occasion for such a usage was in March 2020, when governments and the public became aware of the global dimension and urgency of the Covid-19 threat.

Political leaders of many countries rushed to declare in public broadcasts that their respective nations were at war against the virus or the pandemic.

They included prime minster Boris Johnson as well as the then US president Donald Trump, then Italian prime minister Mario Draghi, the French and Chinese presidents, Emmanuel Macron and Xi Jinping and the UN secretary-general António Guterres.

With the exception of Guterres who, as could be expected, pleaded for international solidarity, most other leaders used these war declarations to prepare their national audiences for stringent social distancing and public health measures and to ask for discipline and solidarity.

The latter use of the war-declaration scenario clearly served an emphatic persuasive purpose: to warn the public of an imminent danger, underline its urgency and emergency and justify in advance the necessary restrictions which would culminate in the first wave of lockdowns.

At this level, the metaphor was still fully transparent , after all, the restrictions resembled similar measures, e.g. curfews.

Therefore, we may read the Covid-19 war declaration as a so-called ‘argument from analogy’: just as in a military conflict it is deemed necessary to restrict uncontrolled movements and contacts of the civilian population and enforce compliance, so also in the beginning Covid-19 war, sacrifices had to be made by all for the protection of the community.

The acceptance of such an argument from analogy depends on the similarity that is seen between the topics that are being compared in the underlying metaphor.

For members of the public who judge the threat of the pandemic as comparable to that of a war, the analogical argument in favour of compliance with government and expert recommendations will sound plausible.

For those, on the other hand, who view it as a false analogy, war-like lockdowns and other restrictive measures will be unacceptable and arouse fears and conspiracy theories about hidden motives of the announcers of the war.

A further factor to be considered when judging war metaphors is their actual reception among different audiences.

When Johnson gave his Covid-19 war-statement in March 2020, he was compared in the UK media with Britain’s most famous war-leader, Winston Churchill, and the pandemic threat with the Blitz, Britain’s historical experience of holding out against the threat of Nazi Germany’s military attack.

These associations were confined to the British public. They were not used in the US, French or German public media, although these did also employ war-terminology a lot, but with different persuasive emphases.

French media, for instance, highlighted border closures and curfews as main comparison points between a real war and the metaphorical one declared by president Macron.

In Germany, the then finance minister and now federal chancellor Olaf Scholz made headlines for promising to hit the crisis with a 'bazooka' of public spending.

In both cases, the war analogy was transparent and generated little debate. By contrast, US president Trump’s war declaration was targeted at the ‘China virus’ as the main war enemy in the context of his more general conflict with China (which included also a trade war), and it was heavily lambasted for its racist overtones, in the US and internationally.

Some of his political allies even suggested that China had ‘launched’ the virus from a secret bioweapons laboratory, which implied an act of real-life biological warfare. That exemplifies the danger of a propagandistically exploited metaphor being turned into a conspiracy theory with potentially disastrous real-life consequences.

Trump’s successor, Joe Biden, was therefore right to refocus the metaphor by stating soon after his election: ‘We are at war with the virus, not with each other’. Knowing who exactly is the enemy is essential, also in metaphorical wars.

Dr Andreas Musolff is a professor of intercultural communication at the UEA



The Covid lexicon

It's not all war... Many other metaphors, similes and analogies have been deployed to describe the course of the pandemic. Here are just a few of them...

Football

Prof Jonathan Van-Tam, England's deputy chief medical officer, has become known for his elaborate metaphors when discussing Covid, often involving football. He has described earlier stages of the pandemic as, variously, scoring an equaliser in the 70th minute, a penalty shootout and getting a yellow card.

Grand National

Sticking to the sporting theme, Prof Van-Tam described the effect of the vaccine roll-out and earlier restrictions as meaning Britain was in a "Grand National-style race" to beat coronavirus.

Trains

Prof Van-Tam also used the analogy of waiting for a train to describe the process of vaccines being developed. "What we need now is for people to get on that train and travel safely to their destinations," he added.

Yoghurt

Prof Van-Tam (again) discussing the challenges of having to keep some vaccines at -70C: "It's not a yoghurt that can be taken out of the fridge and put back in multiple times."

Whack-a-mole

Used by the prime minister to describe the strategy of responding forcefully to localised outbreaks, as they emerged.

The invisible mugger

Another of the prime minister's phrases, to describe the virus as a physical assailant, to be wrestled to the floor

Petri dishes

An apt phrase used to describe places (such as cruise ships, airport queues, or even entire countries) which were said to offer rife conditions for the virus to spread

Squashing the sombrero

One of the earliest and most vivid phrases, used by Boris Johnson to illustrate the intention to take measures to 'flatten the curve' of rapidly rising cases






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