The coronavirus and the failures of war metaphors

Photo by Specna Arms on Unsplash
Photo by Specna Arms on Unsplash

Donald Trump now refers to himself as a “wartime president” who is fighting the “invisible enemy” of the coronavirus. He’s hardly the only one employing military-style rhetoric. During his March debate with Bernie Sanders, presidential hopeful Joe Biden claimed that “we are war with the virus” and that this moment “is like we are being attacked from abroad.” Days later, Senator Lindsey Graham told Fox News that “we’re going to counterattack the virus. We’re going to starve it, we’re going to bomb it, and we’re going to kill it.” The war metaphors are everywhere.

Great. Just what the United States needs: another war. 

America loves to declare war on various nouns. We’ve had “the war on terror,” “the war on drugs,” “the war on crime,” and “the war on poverty.” All of those nouns, and the many awful things they signify, continue to exist in the real world of humans, so it would seem that all of our wars—including the ones on parts of speech—aren’t going particularly that well these days. And now we’re about to launch another war, this one against a virus.

There’s only one problem. The virus isn’t alive, not in the ways that we usually think of life, at least. If a virus is an enemy, it’s an enemy without generals, a foe with no military training academy, an adversary with no master plan for world domination. A virus also doesn’t make decisions, can’t think for itself, and will never fall in love. A virus can’t even replicate on its own. For replication to happen, the virus needs a host. On its own, a virus is merely a package of free-floating genetic material. As a 2004 article for Scientific American clarifies, a virus is akin to a seed. “Viruses resemble seeds more than they do live cells,” the article explains. “They have a certain potential, which can be snuffed out, but they do not attain the more autonomous state of life.”

If a virus is an enemy, it’s an enemy without generals, a foe with no military training academy, an adversary with no master plan for world domination.

It may seem misplaced of me to focus on metaphors while a pandemic quite literally plagues the world, but it’s important because the language we use helps guide our actions. And war metaphors structure our thinking in a highly specific way, into battles of good versus evil, of victor and vanquished, of glory for those who survive and ignominy for those who are defeated. Today, the virus and everything associated with it is evil. It is we who are good, and good must prevail.

War metaphors, in other words, help to create enemies, even when they’re not really there. Donald Trump’s initial insistence on calling the coronavirus the “Chinese virus” amplified the vilification of Asians and Asian Americans as enemies during a difficult time for everyone and a doubly difficult time for anyone who is Asian. To be Asian in America today means to worry about getting the virus and about being physically assaulted in a racist attack.

Between March 19 and March 25, Asian Americans reported more than 650 incidents of discrimination related to the coronavirus, according to one study. The real number is undoubtedly much higher, although an unintended side effect of the shelter-in-place regime that many of us are experiencing right now is that there will be less of this street-level violence as fewer people are on the streets.

But the problem with deploying war metaphors to discuss disease is larger than racist scapegoating. As any reader of Susan Sontag will know, we often use metaphors when describing illnesses. The use of military metaphors, however, is surprisingly recent. According to “Healing Without Waging War,” a 2016 article published in the American Journal of Bioethics, such thinking became established only in the nineteenth century, with Louis Pasteur playing a major role in promoting military metaphors in medicine as the germ theory of disease took off. Today, this language is all around us. It’s become commonplace, as the article makes clear, to conceptualize medicine as, say, a “battle” against death and disease. We talk about pathogens that “invade” our bodies. We “fight” diseases using the body’s “defenses.” We don’t even listen to doctors. Instead, we follow “doctors’ orders.”  

But war is the wrong metaphor for confronting today’s deadly coronavirus. War metaphors around disease invoke the human domination of nature and the subjugation of the pathogen as the means to absolute victory. In fact, it is the very arrogance of dominating nature that has brought this pathogen into circulation in the first place.

Researchers tell us that this virus, like with the earlier SARS outbreak in 2002-2003, probably originated in bats, where coronaviruses exist without complication. This time, there may have been an intermediate host—perhaps a pangolin—that amplified the virus before it jumped to humans, causing disease and death on a global scale.

So-called zoonotic viruses (viruses that leap from animals to humans) are a growing problem in the world. Why? As the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine warned in 2017, because of rapid urbanization, massive deforestation, a global climate crisis, and the ever-increasing loss of biodiversity. These are the factors leading not only to new infectious diseases but also to pandemic influenzas and growing antimicrobial resistance. And, as is abundantly clear by now, what happens in one part of the world can reverberate in every other part. Put simply, the problem is not the bats or even the virus. The problem is us.

It’s time to stop invoking military metaphors as ways of vanquishing disease. Relying on them only precludes us from seeing the real dilemmas staring us in the face. Rather than thinking of the virus as an enemy, perhaps it’s better to think instead that the balance of the world is off, that our responsibility is not to annihilate an enemy but, through truly global cooperation, to restore the harmony to nature that we disturbed in the first place.

In the meantime, Trump is taking the coronavirus emergency to force through even more environmental degradation while few are watching. His administration has directed the Environmental Protection Agency to suspend enforcement of polluters during the crisis and will also roll back Obama-era emissions standards for cars. And then there’s the rush for the vaccine. The New York Times reports that governments around the world are preparing to monopolize production of a future vaccine so that their populations will be the first in line for what could be a limited supply. The competition could be deadly.

Forget the war metaphors against disease. The fight has always been among ourselves.

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