Building support for human rights and dignity has taken on new urgency in the middle of the global COVID-19 crisis. Yet, as the number of infections caused by the virus rises in the United States, government officials and members of the media are increasingly using the language of war to describe the pandemic and the response. These metaphors are not just words. They reflect deeply held patterns of thinking about this crisis that ignores the many ways we have all been working to support each other in these challenging times—or worse, enable undemocratic, even violent responses to the pandemic.
Consider the words of leaders from across the political spectrum and the globe:
- “This is war.” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo at a press conference, after describing the deadly nature of the outbreak.
- “The world is at war with a hidden enemy. WE WILL WIN!.” —March 17 tweet by President Donald Trump. The next day, during a news conference on the coronavirus, he compared himself to a "wartime president."
- "We are at war with a virus that threatens to tear us apart." —World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said
- “The frontline soldiers” against COVID-19 is how a United Nations blog described health care workers.
- “Testing is just the beginning in the battle against Covid-19.”—New York Times headline
As coverage grows, military and war metaphors have become a part of our everyday discourse. But to build support for human rights and dignity in the middle of this crisis, we need to demilitarize our language.
While war metaphors, in the short term, may sometimes be effective in conveying urgency and mobilizing resources, in the long term, they breed fear. Fear can in turn be weaponized by governments to promote militarized responses, which focus more on social control than on public health. We’re already seeing this play out as governments around the world have started to criminalize dissent and increase surveillance.
In talking about the pandemic, it’s important that we frame our language in terms that help us build the safe and peaceful communities that all people deserve. Human beings cannot think without metaphors—they help us make sense of the world around us. It’s critical for those working to advance peace to talk about this crisis in ways that emphasize our shared values.
Here are some messaging tips to try in your own activism:
1. Call the COVID-19 crisis and response a global public health emergency, not a war. Calling the pandemic what it is—a global health emergency—conveys the urgency needed to mobilize resources to respond. Words like “emergency” call up humanitarian metaphors, inviting us to center the compassionate work of first responders and medical professionals working hard to help the sick. It gives us space to talk about the many mutual aid networks that have sprung up across the U.S. and around the world.
The use of war metaphors by public officials and media figures is reflective of a culture where war is the primary reference point. Media critic Adam H. Johnson points out that in the U.S., war is always a central frame of reference, noting that “dozens of other countries seem more than capable of evoking civic duty, without sorting out the world as good guys and bad guys with the latter needing to be killed.” In wars, we are called to fight each other; but in emergencies, we are called to help each other.
2. Get news and perspectives about the pandemic directly from public health experts. The pandemic is receiving wall-to-wall coverage across major news outlets and publications, some of which reinforces unhelpful military tropes. Public health experts from around the world have also been using their expertise to cover the pandemic, in a more illuminating and nuanced manner. Johns Hopkins University, for example, has a website dedicated to COVID-19, that includes important information and updates from the experts and researchers. The website gives you access to articles, opinion pieces, and videos and events about the various aspects of this crisis.
While some public health officials use military metaphors even in their scientific writing, public health scholars have studied the use of military war metaphors in medicine, and thus are more likely to be aware of its impact. Reading the coverage by public experts is more likely to give us not just a better understanding of the pandemic but expand our vocabulary for talking about the pandemic in new ways.
3. Lead with human rights and dignity. The pandemic has reminded us of how interconnected the world is. People are coming together across the globe to keep each other healthy and safe. While this no doubt is an unprecedented crisis, it is also an opportunity to highlight the things we need to build the safe and peaceful communities we deserve.
We need solidarity, empathy, and compassion. War metaphors are antithetical and counterproductive to these values. Santiago Cabanas, Spain’s ambassador to Washington, in an interview with Washington Post, pointed out the folly of using war terms: At times of national crisis, there is “a temptation to use war terms” but the current crisis neither calls for an arms race nor national competition, he said. “We don’t need weapons, we don’t need bombs, we need solidarity and compassion.”
4. Educate yourself on the importance of language in this moment. A growing number of writers and scholars have criticized the prevalence of war metaphors in the discourse about COVID-19 and have pointed out that these metaphors inadequately speak to the complexity of this moment. Washington Post columnist Ishaan Tharoor, for instance, laid out the numerous ways in which the war metaphor falls short. Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Will Bunch decried the use of militaristic rhetoric and called for empathy and an abiding faith in the power of science. Novelist Arundhati Roy noticed that officials managing the pandemic are not even using war as a metaphor, but are using war literally. Professor Christine Schwöbel-Patel argued that to advance internationalism of solidarity, we must refuse war-talk. These articles provide more perspectives on the shortcomings of war metaphors.
As we are living through historic times, we need to rethink and reframe the ways we speak about the health and safety of our communities. The stakes are high for talking about this emergency using language that focuses on our shared values and advances solidarity.