Challenging the pandemic is not waging a war

This is an excerpt from COVID-19 and Public Policy in the Digital Age. It explains why the ‘war metaphor’ is a wrong message to deliver to the public.

The universal cry of ‘waging war’ may be apposite in the context of geo-political propaganda about ‘Cold War II’ between the United States and China, but, as is discussed below, it is less advisable when confronting a pandemic. The rhetoric (doctors and health workers described as ‘heroes’), exploited by politicians and the media is an integral part of this militaristic metaphor, particularly in the United States:

[A]gonism—taking a warlike stance in contexts that are not literally war—pervades our public and private discourse, leading us to approach issues and each other in an adversarial spirit. The resulting ‘argument culture’ makes it more difficult to solve problems and is corrosive to the human spirit … By creating an atmosphere of animosity, it makes indi- viduals more likely to turn on each other, so that everyone feels more vulnerable and more isolated. And that is why the argument culture is destructive to the common good. 1

It contributed to the panic and selfishness that saw stockpiling in super-markets across the globe. The role of metaphor in shaping Coronavirus- related public opinion and public policy cannot be overstated. Metaphor is ‘a pervasive, irreducible, imaginative structure of human understanding that influences the nature of meaning and constrains our rational inferences’. The intrinsic ambiguity of metaphors that led Hobbes—metaphorically—to call them ignes fatui is precisely what makes them valuable in the psychotherapy to heal, in advertising to convince, and, in politics, to deceive.

But, as already mentioned, we are not waging war against the virus. The psychological effects of war on civilians include post-traumatic stress dis- order, depression, anxiety, and other forms of emotional distress.12 While the COVID-19 containment measures caused similar problems; in times of war, it is relatively easy to justify the need to expose spies, and covert enemy operators require exceptional measures. The requirement to supply soldiers on the frontline warrants an acceptance of the scarcity of goods, and that in extremely harsh conditions the first rule is ‘survive’, sometimes overlooking social solidarity. Moreover, even in the case of an enemy invasion or occupation people maintain at least a mild awareness of their rights when challenging abusive conduct by the enemy.13 Encountering an invisible, overwhelming, non-human threat is not a personal attack against a country or a nation. There is nobody to be united against, no place to hide, and no way to fight back:

[W]hen you’re in a struggle with one of Mother Nature’s chal- lenges—like a virus or a climate change—the goal is not to defeat her. No one can. She’s just chemistry, biology and physics. The goal is to adapt. 2

It is therefore evident that combative metaphors

aren’t particularly well suited for telling people what not to do. ‘War metaphors call for mobilization, for action, for doing something’, Veronika Koller, a linguist at Lancaster University in England, told me. In this pandemic, governments are asking people to do the opposite: to forgo normal routines and avoid going outside. Put simply, to do nothing. War metaphors also tend to be, well, metaphorical. They lack precision and clarity, both of which are in desperately short supply right now. 3

If a government’s goal is to weaken the citizens’ sense of democracy, terror- ism rather than war would have been a more appropriate metaphor to char- acterize governments’ and the media’s attitude to COVID-19: an invisible and lethal enemy, capable of attacking at any moment anywhere, against which only the authorities can save the country.

  1. Tannen 2013.
  2. Friedman 2020
  3. Serhan 2020

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