A Healing Metaphor: Pandemic as War
by Julia Smucker
The language is everywhere: we’re at war against an invisible enemy, adjusting to new realities of wartime living and expressing gratitude to the brave men and women fighting on the front lines to keep us safe. Except that the front in this war is in hospitals and labs, and the front-line fighters are healthcare providers, armed with medical equipment and armored with protective gowns and face shields. Most notably, they are fighting not to cause premature death but to prevent it. The war is not one of killing, but of healing.
Cartoon by Safaa Odah, Gaza artist (pictured). From her Instagram
If the problem were on a smaller scale, this might seem an aggressive metaphor, especially for an endeavor whose means and aims are so opposite to that of war. Yet, when describing the response to a global pandemic, the situation seems to beg for such language in order to convey an appropriate level of gravitas, a scale of organization and readiness akin to the preparation and implementation of military strategies. But with one major difference: whatever human casualties are suffered, they will not occur at human hands.
It’s not only the life-affirming mission of this “fight” that redeems the metaphorical language of being at war: some tools and mechanisms made for war are also being literally redirected toward strictly lifesaving ends as the concerns of public health and “national security” intersect. For example, the Defense Production Act, as its name suggests, was originally designed to shore up weapons production during the Korean War but has occasionally been used for disaster relief and has now been invoked to enable production of necessary medical supplies.
U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called for a reorientation from killing to healing on a global scale, pleading for a turn from hostilities among warring parties toward a united front against humanity’s “common enemy,” COVID-19. In a potent rhetorical turn, he applied the metaphor in both directions, first calling the virus the common enemy we must fight against, then calling war itself a sickness.
To be sure, the extent to which pleas like Guterres’ are heeded remains to be seen, and responses so far are predictably mixed, ranging from bilateral acquiescence to open defiance to more ambiguous scenarios in between. There also hasn’t been a complete turn from militarism to medicine in the U.S., as some manufacturers of military equipment disregard calls to close in order to prevent coronavirus spread, judging themselves essential.
The metaphor itself has its shortfalls, as all metaphors do. As a few have pointed out, there may be dangers in overly anthropomorphizing a virus by assigning it human attributes like intent or nationality, especially in ways that feed prejudice by associating certain categories of human beings with disease. And “wartime” policies can of course be both good and bad, lending themselves to mutual aid, solidarity and protection of the vulnerable, or to opportunistic power grabs by autocratic governments in the name of public safety.
Still, despite its limits, the seemingly violent language of a war against the pandemic contains some ironic potential for hope – if the metaphor is realized in a shift toward nonviolent practices. Public crises, whether they involve humans fighting each other or fighting a nonhuman entity such as a virus, have a way of bringing out the best and worst in humanity. If we as individuals and as societies allow the best in us to win out during and after the crisis we’re currently experiencing, that would be a war worth winning.
See some of the other posts from Julia Smucker: