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April 6, 2020

Dangerous metaphor

Opinion

April 6, 2020

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.

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 healthcare 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.

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?

Excerpted from: 'Why 'Waging War' on Coronavirus Is a Dangerous Metaphor'.

Commondreams.org