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A Pandemic Is Not a War

The application of war metaphors only serves to mask what’s truly at stake.

Health workers greet people as they arrive in cars at a mobile Covid-19 testing site at the Westside Community Center in the Goldsboro neighborhood of Sanford, Florida on April 23, 2020.

Health workers greet people as they arrive in cars at a mobile Covid-19 testing site at the Westside Community Center in the Goldsboro neighborhood of Sanford, Florida on April 23, 2020. (Photo: Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Though many public officials and media outlets seem increasingly convinced that we are fighting a war against Covid-19, framing the pandemic in military terms obscures what we need to know and how we can cope with this virus.

At a press conference on Wednesday, March 18, President Donald Trump offered this grammatical hash: “I view it—in a sense as a wartime president.” Translating the mangled discourse into a coherent statement, CNN (3/18/20) reported, “Trump said that he sees the country on wartime footing and himself as a wartime president amid the coronavirus crisis.”

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo picked up the theme of war on March 30: “The frontline battle is going to be hospitals. The soldiers in this fight are the healthcare professionals.”

One prominent figure who contradicted the war frame in dramatic terms was Capt. Brett Crozier, commander of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, who was relieved of duty after writing a letter begging US military brass to allow his infected crew of 5,000 to disembark and quarantine to prevent the spread of the virus. “We are not at war,” the letter read. “Sailors do not need to die. If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset: our sailors.”

On CNN (4/2/20), Eric Levenson explored the war frame, saying the “common metaphors” now used to characterize efforts to stop the virus as a military war “fit smoothly” in a number of ways. Like war, he said, the pandemic is about life and death, “an ‘enemy’ who can strike at any time, ‘battles’ on the ‘front lines’ and calls for the ‘home front’ to support the effort.”

The war metaphor positions the virus within an underlying set of cultural assumptions that are widely understood: War as a media frame is easily deployed because it’s so familiar. But the application of war metaphors only serves to mask what’s truly at stake.

Us Against Them

War always has an enemy. Identifying the virus, Levenson calls it “an enemy who can strike at any time,” using the personalized who instead of the impersonal that. In war discourse, the enemy is a personalized target, not a virus. Enemies are always at fault. The communist, the illegal alien or the terrorist can never be negotiated with, for they are demonized and outside the bounds of our own humanity.

Like all the enemies identified in Trump’s lexicon of hate and xenophobia, Covid-19 is exoticized as the “China Virus.” The enemies of war are dehumanized, positioned on the other side of a wall between us and them. They are part of a vision of a world divided in conflict, at a time when the best way to deal with this pandemic is collectively, at the local and global levels. But instead of joining international efforts to contain the pandemic, the US is still targeting enemies, sanctioning Iran and exacerbating the humanitarian crisis there, engaging in regime change in Venezuela, cheered on by media, and bombing Iraq. While the World Health Organization has organized an international consortium called Solidarity, to advance as quickly as possible, global research needed to develop treatments, anti-viral drugs and a vaccine, Trump has vowed to cut off US funding for WHO.

Healthcare Professionals as Soldiers

Soldiers are the ones sent to kill the perfectly evil Others, finding glory in triumph, which always entails the death of the enemy. Their roles, purpose and goals are fundamentally different from the actions and sensibilities of healthcare professionals. Consider the Twitter post (4/2/20) of Dr. Craig Spencer, an experienced doctor who cared for Ebola victims and is now treating those with Covid-19 in New York City:

Your hands upon theirs. You think of their family. At home. Sobbing. Someone starts saying a prayer. You can’t help but cry. This isn’t what we do. You stand by. You wait. This isn’t what we do. You stand by. You wait. Time of death: 7:19 pm.

Compassion, crying and providing solace for family members of victims are not part of a frontline soldier’s repertoire. Dr. Megan Ranney rejected the soldier motif, posting a tweet (4/2/20) saying:

We did not ask to be heroes, or soldiers or troops. And in fact, my colleagues are increasingly dismissing this description. We are healthcare providers, with real fears in this moment of #Covid-19.

Healthcare professionals openly admit being afraid; soldiers on the front lines rarely do. PBS (4/7/20) talked to two emergency medical technicians who transport those sick with the virus to hospitals in New York. Both spoke openly about feelings of fear and dread. They work for meager salaries, one $37,000 a year, and neither had medical insurance.

But in popular culture, soldiers have morphed into something other than human, with an ensuing loss of humanity. Thanks to the merging of Marvel Studios and the military/entertainment complex, soldiers are now frequently depicted as superheroes—men of steel— a trope used for recruitment. Soldiers, especially superhuman ones, are always brave, the antithesis of fearful.

The Washington Post has become particularly attached to war metaphors and soldier motifs. Alex Horton (3/27/20) wrote that the kind of praise doctors receive for “their dangerous and unforgiving work” has been mostly “reserved for combat troops and veterans.”

Stand with Doctors retweeted a Twitter post (2/4/20) by Faye M.D. that pushed back directly at such media framing. “If we are soldiers in a war, and dying in this war, don’t soldiers receive#HazardPay? Aren’t their families guaranteed some sort of benefit after death? We are needlessly sacrificing our lives w/o #compensation #GetMePPE #COVID-19 @andersoncooper @washingtonpost @cnnbrk

 

Battle for Hearts and Minds

In calling for the “home front” to “support the [war] effort,” many journalists seem to forget that the battle for hearts and minds in war always leads to the closing down of information and the production of propaganda (FAIR.org, 5–6/03). When Captain Crozier was relieved of his duties for trying to protect his sailors, Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly rebuked him, saying he was either “too naive or too stupid” if he thought his letter would not get “out to the public.” Though Modly resigned after a tape surfaced of his bungling of Crozier’s firing, Trump confirmed his support for censoring Crozier, saying he “shouldn’t have been writing letters,” even one attempting to save the lives of servicemembers (CNN, 4/7/20).

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Instead of reporting on the danger of war censorship, media obscured what was at stake, and gave more column inches to the military. The New York Times (4/12/20) focused on a “Rift in the Military,” featuring Gen. John E. Hyten (vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) expressing “concerns about the possibility of more safety issues on warships.” The divisions-within-the-military theme was picked up by Alternet (4/13/20), which repeated another Hyten quote, “To think that it will never happen again is not a good way to plan.”

In this war miasma, the Washington Post (3/27/20) openly promoted persuasion as the best pathway to garner public support from the home front to “enlist” in the war effort, printing a number of redrawn, good old fashioned WWII propaganda posters to convince the public. But of what?

Persuasion vs. Information

Examples of highly successful efforts to prevent the loss of human life from this virus underscore the essential role of open, truthful lines of communication and information. A CBC report (4/6/20) noted that British Columbia had flattened the Covid-19 curve. The report states that a key factor in BC’s success comes from dealing with Covid-19 early, because “they had open lines of communication to quickly scale up a unified response relatively early.”

The person who speaks at every Canadian news conference is Dr. Bonnie Henry, who oversaw Canada’s SARS and H1N1 outbreaks. Henry stays at press conferences and answers questions, “and doesn’t shade the truth. She’s frank and honest and emotional with people.” Her message of helping others is infused with humanitarian principles and concern for “people who we will never meet.” Having a leader who can articulate “how we’re all in this together, and make a convincing case for why you need to do your part” is essential. As a health official, Henry has now become one of the most famous and beloved people in Canada.

Another example comes from New Zealand, where Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her team “have spoken in simple language: Stay home. Don’t have contact with anyone outside your household ‘bubble’” (Washington Post, 4/7/20). Her message also taps into a collective, unified humanity: “Be kind. We’re all in this together.” She’s usually done this from the podium of news conferences, where she has discussed everything from wage subsidies to the price of cauliflowers.

We can also look to Germany, a country with a high number of infections but a low percentage of fatal cases compared to its European neighbors. In addition to early and widespread “testing and treatment and plenty of intensive care beds,” trust in government has led to a public embrace of social distancing guidelines (New York Times, 4/4/20).

The leadership of Chancellor Angela Merkel, a trained scientist, may also account for the low fatality rate. Merkel “communicated clearly, calmly and regularly throughout the crisis,” wrote the Times.

The Guardian (3/22/20) published a feature on the scientists who dominate Germany’s press conferences, who have become the faces of the crisis. They are the new German rock stars, explainers-in-chief, watched nightly by anxious audiences telling the public “how the governments they advise plan to contain the coronavirus.”

A primary care physician in the Bronx, Dr. Bruce Soloway, currently practicing telephonically, told FAIR:

What is needed now is complete transparency. People need a clear explanation of what they need to do and why. We need a sense of mission and purpose if we are going to pull together and do what we need to do.

Four of Soloway’s long-time patients have died, and his daily work includes consoling the families of the dead. “This big soup of lies and obfuscation, spinning the numbers, giving people false hope, is a distraction. It’s counterproductive.”

Those on the frontline of this virus are actually the people themselves. Every time someone enters a public place, they literally risk their own lives and the lives of others, and ultimately, the overwhelmed, exhausted, healthcare professionals who will treat them. The public needs a fundamental understanding of how the virus is spread, and the importance of their behavior. They need truthful information based in scientific research. A leader who uses media to lie to a civilian population in the midst of the most deadly pandemic in a century skirts the United Nation’s definition of genocide.

British Columbia, New Zealand and Germany have all used truthful, clear messaging, based in collective themes of how we are all in this together—messages very different from assertions that hospital workers are “the soldiers who are fighting this battle for us,” as Governor Cuomo (3/27/20) put it.

Stopping this virus will not depend on superimposing the images of soldiers over doctors. If we have learned anything, it is that the virus thrives on division and conflict, especially politicized, discursive conflict. Trump does little else than create division, conflict, uncertainty and confusion. As Science editor H. Holden Thorp (4/3/20) pointed out, “The nationalism that now has flared up around the White House threatens to undermine the effort to manage a global crisis.”

Real solutions are based in the language of medicine, science and humanitarianism, not war, and the language of doctors who have experienced humanitarian disasters brought on by epidemics. It is clear that the only way we can get a handle on the situation is with international collaboration. Thorp went on to point out:

The data coming out of Chinese labs studying the virus—how it spreads and the disease that it causes—as well as the findings of Chinese scientists on the ground, are indispensable in finding a solution. That’s why the racist labeling of the virus is doubly dangerous.

The war frame directs our attentions toward all the wrong impulses of division, fear and security-based force, while it reinforces an ideological view condoning censorship and propaganda. These practices deflect critical journalism and the watchdog function of the press when it is needed most. As Mark Hertsgaard (CJR, 4/8/20) asserted, media should “expand their definition of what qualifies as a coronavirus story to include profiteering from the pandemic, whether financially or politically. Presenting Trump as a president at war makes it easier for the administration to usurp congressional oversight, and ironically, more difficult for the media watchdog to bark.

Continuing to present the pandemic within the usual frames of conflict and battlefields will only exacerbate its deadly effects and encourage its spread—as well as  taking the country further away from the fundamental changes needed to restore American democracy after the pandemic.

Robin Andersen

Dr. Robin Andersen is Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University. In addition, she directs Fordham's M.A. Program in Public Communication and the Peace and Justice Studies Program. Contact her by email: andersen [at] fordham.edu

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