Why talking about the war on coronavirus is causing harm

Metaphor is not merely a tool reserved for poets. It soaks our language from our everyday conversation to the most high-flying rhetoric. We understand the world through metaphors. It helps lend physicality and understanding to abstract concepts. George Lakoff, in Metaphors We Live By, even says that our entire conceptual model of reality is metaphorical. Metaphors are powerful. We need to use them to come to a better understanding of our world.

The coronavirus pandemic has prompted many commentators, journalists and politicians to liken it to a war. It is a battle against an invisible enemy. It requires sacrifice and bravery to overcome. It is an easy and, at first sight, apt metaphor to employ. The response to coronavirus requires a collective effort and will, a coming together of the whole community in a single-minded focus, and a suspension of normality that does resemble nations during wartime. It creates heroes and famous battles that inspire stiff upper lips and helps us shoulder the burden of onerous measures. But the sheer quantity of such analogies does create harm.

Metaphors are powerful because they transform the general into the specific. Big ideas are shrunk down to graspable things. Metaphors allow us to budget time and shine a light on an idea. Situations can be looking up or going downhill.

Arguments become battles which allows you to assault an opponent’s logical position. Professional outrage merchants on YouTube post videos where they ‘destroy’ someone and their thinking through argument. These verbal battles between opponents leave one side victorious and the other defeated. War is a powerful metaphor in this context because arguments do mimic the contours of armed conflict. It places two sides against one another.

With coronavirus that is not the case. There are no good guys or bad guys. There is humanity and then there is this little packet of proteins and genetic code. Coronavirus does not spy or strategise, it does not invade or invent terrible new weapons. There are no allies or axis, no central powers and no entente. But constant talk of war can leave us creating an enemy where there is none. It leads to President Trump tweeting and ranting about the ‘China virus’. It allows us to forget the very real human suffering and hardship faced by the citizens of Wuhan. It is there on Twitter when people, escaping small and squalid flats, walk in a park and get called traitors or collaborators conspiring with a foreign enemy. Collective action on a global scale is needed to overcome coronavirus. But by overusing the war metaphor it splits people and nations apart.

Photo by Stijn Swinnen on Unsplash

It goes beyond that too. The war metaphor makes it easy to ignore the death and destitution the virus causes. When battles are won with courage and bravery those who succumb to the virus must have lacked fight. People do not die because they are without a certain quality. They die because a virus attacks their lungs and makes it impossible to breathe. Delivery workers, shop staff and healthcare professionals are called heroes. This verbal admiration, echoed praise, is not backed up by material action though. Those stocking shelves and delivering food packages are not given hazard pay or sick leave. Those working in hospitals and care homes are not given the protection they need. But by recognising them as heroes we can be blinded to what they actually require. We can pat ourselves on the back after a weekly round of applause for the health service or talk about minting medals. This does not help and is only possible because we are employing the language of war when we talk about this healthcare crisis.

Weneed metaphors to help us make sense of the world. In First You Write a Sentence, Joe Moran says that ‘metaphor is how we nail the jelly of reality to the wall.’ War is not a reality for many of us in the west. We know it through movies and videogames. That creates a false impression of what must be done. It creates sides and divides people. It underplays the seriousness of things. The coronavirus pandemic is not a war but a healthcare crisis. It is an unneeded metaphor. Plague is as much a rider of the apocalypse as war is. When a metaphor gets repeated too often, when it becomes a runaway metaphor, it risks obfuscating the real nature of things more than it clarifies them. We have reached that point by now. We must see this pandemic as it really is and face it together with the understanding that gives us.