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Why 'Waging War' on Coronavirus Is a Dangerous Metaphor

Wars are used as excuses for dismissing concerns for justice or human rights, claiming that these concerns are distractions from the "real" mission. 

Americans, like people in many countries, hold onto oddly inaccurate nostalgia about how war brings us together as a nation. (Photo: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

Americans, like people in many countries, hold onto oddly inaccurate nostalgia about how war brings us together as a nation. (Photo: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

“We’re at war with the virus.” (Pres. Candidate and Former Vice-Pres. Joe Biden)

 "I view it—in a sense as a wartime president." (Pres. Donald Trump)

“The president said this is a war. I agree with that. This is a war.” (Gov. Andrew Cuomo)

I have been feeling troubled by the use of war metaphors to describe how the United States is or should be responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Research by psychologists Paul Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky helps explain why: Metaphors have the power to hint at patterns and evoke unconscious reactions that change the way we think.

It’s hard to imagine a silver lining in the current horror, but perhaps such a monumental disaster—heavily driven by bad policies and leadership—can become an opportunity for fundamentally restructuring our society so that we will come together to build peace rather than wage wars.  

Within my lifetime I have seen an initially well-intentioned war on poverty turn into a war on poor people in the rhetoric and policies of Presidents Reagan and Clinton. I also have seen the not-so-well-intentioned war on drugs become a war on drug users and communities of color, leading to the highest incarceration rate in the world and disproportionate criminalization of African Americans. We have long known that crowded and unsanitary conditions in jails and prisons encourage the spread of disease. In the wake of COVID-19, states and counties now are forced to choose between allowing massive numbers of deaths inside these facilities or wholesale release of people who lack money, jobs, houses and health insurance into poorly-resourced communities on the outside.

Like any war, COVID-19 will disproportionately hurt those who are already vulnerable. People with pre-existing conditions may lose out in rationing protocols for ventilators. People living paycheck to paycheck are especially likely to lose their homes or go hungry during the crisis. The majority of health care workers endangered by prolonged physical contact with infected patients are low-paid aides, often women of color. And most of the workers in the “vital industries,” who cannot protect themselves by working from home, are low-paid workers. Demographic data laying out the race and ethnicities of people hospitalized or who have died due to COVID-19 have not been made available by the government, but as of now it looks as if the highest death rates are in crowded urban centers with large numbers of people of color. It remains to be seen how the pandemic will play out in poor white communities in the South and Appalachia – regions with sparse medical resources and high rates of substance mis/use.

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Metaphorical wars on disease easily turn into wars on those who are believed to embody the disease, as was the case in the early decades of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and now may be the case regarding people who “look” Chinese. In the United States we have a long history of declaring war on phenomena, ideas and behaviors that we dislike or deem morally unacceptable. These “wars” often conflate disease with moral vices ranging from alcoholism to obesity to lung cancer. We like to describe people experiencing disease as “fighters.” Those who remain alive are praised as “survivors” or “victorious”. Those who die have “lost their battle.” Is the implication that the former somehow worked harder than the latter? That they were smarter or made better choices? This comes dangerously close to the rhetoric of the eugenics movement (developed in the United States and most famously and energetically adopted by the Nazis) – the idea that some people are inherently stronger, healthier and better than others (the winners) and that those people deserve social praise, resources, and encouragement to reproduce themselves. Losers, in contrast, should be discouraged from reproducing or even eliminated from the social body. 

Americans, like people in many countries, hold onto oddly inaccurate nostalgia about how war brings us together as a nation. While that may have been the case in certain situations, I think more about how we locked up people of Japanese descent in internment camps during WWII and how the Vietnam War fractured the country and led to atrocities like the Kent State killings. This time around, according to the President, the enemy we need to fight is both foreign (the “Chinese virus”) and invisible. In American culture, invisible enemies are portrayed as especially insidious, sneaky, and refusing to fight “fair and square” like proper, upstanding (European male) soldiers. I think here of 1950s McCarthy era “war on Communists” in which Americans were urged to seek out enemies who could be hiding anywhere – in your child’s school, on the screen of your television; to be soldiers in a moral crusade even at the risk of undermining basic civil liberties.

Wars are used as excuses for dismissing concerns for justice or human rights, claiming that these concerns are distractions from the “real” mission (that happened repeatedly with movements for women’s rights). I am struck by Joe Biden’s adamant refusal to consider how our fragmented health care system that leaves millions of Americans without care might be relevant to our failure to respond quickly and competently to the current pandemic. During the last televised debate with Bernie Sanders, Biden declared with ill-concealed annoyance: “It has nothing to do with Medicare for All. That would not solve the problem at all. We’re at war with the virus. We’re at war with the virus. It has nothing to do with co-pays or anything.… People are looking for results, not a revolution.” Dylan Scott and Ella Nilsin point out: “This argument was couched as common sense—deal with the problem in front of you—but it was the opposite. Rather than lay out an achievable but ambitious long-term goal to protect Americans, Biden is focused on an impossible and open-ended mission: victory over a virus. Affordable health care for all? There’s no time for that malarkey now, jack. Haven’t you noticed there’s a war going on?”

During wartime, people are encouraged, even required, to accept what leaders say without question or doubt for the sake of national security. As Adam Weinstein observes, Americans are, “already acting as conscripts in a mass battle of patience and attrition”. Unfortunately, I am not surprised that in the past week some have been punished for the “treason” of speaking out against authority: Chris Smalls was smeared and fired for organizing a walkout protesting unsafe conditions for Amazon workers. Medical staffs at hospitals are being warned not to file complaints or speak to the media about lack of protective equipment.

Leading economists Andrew Sheng and Xiao Geng recently wrote, “Unlike a conventional war, the COVID-19 pandemic is not a choice or a competition. No ceasefire can be reached, no treaty signed. And, with no known vaccine or effective cure, the world has few weapons with which to fight it. The only way to restore peace – or, at the very least, stave off systemic failure until a more effective weapon is developed – is with a whole-of-government, whole-of-society, whole-of-world approach.” In short, we cannot “defeat” coronavirus.

We can, however, strengthen ourselves – our personal and collective “immune” systems. This is the time to seriously consider why people are healthier and happier in countries such as Denmark that mandate living wages, have policies preventing large gaps in wealth, provide parental and sick leave, and fully fund health care and social safety nets for all. It’s hard to imagine a silver lining in the current horror, but perhaps such a monumental disaster – heavily driven by bad policies and leadership – can become an opportunity for fundamentally restructuring our society so that we will come together to build peace rather than wage wars.

Susan Sered

Susan Sered is a professor of sociology at Suffolk University and the author of seven books and dozens of academic and popular articles.

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