For nearly two months now, we have watched as Covid-19 has rampaged through the world at an alarming rate.Throughout its incessant reporting, we have experienced our fair share of war imagery permeating through the media. Words like defeat, enemy, frontlines, field hospitals, battle, fighting, conflict, risk, attack; and, eventually (hopefully), victory, are seemingly constants in its coverage. Ministers meet in “war cabinets” and the ordinary people are encouraged to “do their bit”. Doctors, nurses, supermarket staff, cleaners, public transport workers, post office workers and all other essential workers are going into battle on our behalf. One BBC presenter even communicated his entire segment in terms of the “frontline in a war”.
Such militant metaphors extend even to government officials. Queen Elizabeth alluded to her wartime broadcast in 1940 in her most recent address of the nation, drawing parallels between the Second World War and Covid-19 in the similar state of fear, immense disruption, and separation from those we love that so characterise both. When he declared lockdown in France, President Macron declared war on Covid-19, adopting the language of First World War prime minister George Clemenceau. In China, Xi Jinping emulated Mao Zedong in declaring a “people’s war”. Donald Trump, dubbing the coronavirus a foreign (Chinese) threat, pronounced himself a “war-time president”. Even Angela Merkel claimed Covid-19 to pose the greatest German challenge since 1945.
It is true that the current pandemic feels like a war. The atmosphere echoes that level of resilience and danger: governments are continuously promising to do whatever it takes to maintain the safety of their people in this massive life-death struggle; huge demands are being placed on countries and their resources, causing great pain and suffering with seemingly little result; and the danger comes in dangerously reassuring waves.
However, the main reason that Covid-19 feels like a war to us is because our primary measurement or progress is one of rates of death – not to mention those allegations of under-counting made against the Chinese, Russian and Iranian authorities, which is also a strategy of wartime governments to cap hysteria. This is complete even with that usual wartime mantra that the human meaning behind these statistics is only thrown into sharp relief when we read an individual story or have a personal connection with a victim. The numbers have become so large that they become detached from the humans and the tragedies that they represent. Reminding me strikingly of that Eavan Boland poem “The War Horse”, this complacency is an aspect of possibly every war throughout history, from Vietnam to the Troubles; and it is none more present here, as we sit huddled away in our sanitised homes, bubble-wrapped away.
The wartime metaphor might help some. The interpretation might allow people to conceptualise this extraordinary reality facing us. It might inspire bravery and strength, or a certain mindset desired by the political elite required for mass mobilisation. It might even be used to encourage heroism.
However, this analogy is unhelpful and dangerous. The coronavirus is an international challenge that, while requiring mass mobilisation, requires no real weapons and no intentional killing of others. Using militarised language is, apart from unnecessary, absolutely wrong.
Apart from anything else, this is not really a war – at least, this is a war like no other. Think about the singular and severe threat of Covid-19: it is an external force against the world, not several different nations against each other. And it is doubtful that any nation has, or could, act as stealthily as this disease. How often is a war fought in which the enemy is as elusive, fast-moving, borderline invisible, and substantially unstoppable, as this?
Notably hospital workers rarely stray into such militant terminology. Patients and healthcare workers may take little comfort from being compared to combatants. It is somewhat offensive to suggest that sufferers of the disease have been bizarrely “called to combat”, as if their survival depends on willpower rather than medical treatment, economic factors and social aspects that are absolutely beyond their control.
And what kind of message does this portrary for the people who sadly lost their lives to Covid-19? They did not “lose” such a “battle” because they were weak or failed to out-strategiset it. This burden of recovery should not be placed on the patient, whose suffering is absolutely out of their control; and the idea of “winning” or “losing” in what is effectively a game of chance and devastating misfortune reinstates this. Illness does not exist as a test of character or strength, and recovery should not be the “victory”. Research has actually found that military metaphors in cancer do more harm than good, psychologically, as it induces rhetoric of fatalism and loss of control. Surely the same holds for the current patients of Covid-19.
This rhetoric is also in danger of exploitation by opportunistic politicians. It is argued, often, that war-making is what made the modern state; so framing the response to Covid-19 in military terms can reinforce the state and its power in a very absolutist sense when in reality, other political entities such as the HSE, NHS and World Health Organisation are just as, if not more, crucial; but military metaphors conceal their contributions or co-opt them by describing their efforts in military terms.
Furthermore, the more we use military language to describe other issues, the more we normalise it, and when the next international crisis arrives, as it so inevitably will, rather than examining the deeper structural problems that caused it, we will find it more natural to jump to this wartime narrative of “national mitiarised mobilisation””.
Using this language creates a kind of immunisation to what is actually going on: the proliferation of a confusing and uncontrollable, organically-originated disease with a manmade concept of purposeful destruction. The pandemic is not the same thing as a war, and our response should not be the same. We require empathy, not the “taking up of arms”.
Yes, we need to unite against a “common enemy” but instead of emphasising the “enemy”, why can’t we emphasise the “unity”? We need a shared goal and strategy, driven by collective action. Our main goal is to save lives; and the only way to do this is to work together. One striking phenomenon has been the huge proliferation of organic networks of mutual aid: a huge number of people have been organising solidarity networks to help each other and the most vulnerable. These people have come together across neighbourhoods, cities, regions and nations to help each other without needing to call it a “war” or “military duty”. Using language of solidarity, thus, works just as, if not more, efficiently.
Covid-19 is a universal threat; and unlike a war, which may be solved by peace negotiations, no political concessions can entirely shield us from this virus. So, the human race will emerge from Covid-19 wiser, more efficiently and more complete if we do not frame the understanding of its response in narrow militarised language. This requires something absolutely unprecedented in traditional wartimes: to save ourselves, we have to save each other. Far from a cry for war, it is quite the opposite.
Photo from fabrikasimf
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