Going to ‘war’ against Covid-19

May 24, 2020

Why it matters how we think and talk about the global pandemic

Echoing framings of the current pandemic by world leaders, on March 25, Prime Minister Imran Khan called on the nation to unite in a ‘war’ against Covid-19, saying “the government alone cannot fight and win this war”. In a tweet on April 10, he thanked healthcare workers for registering themselves with the Corona Relief Tiger Force to wage a ‘jihad’ against the virus. Since then, his government has announced a ‘martyr’s package’ for ‘frontline’ healthcare workers even as the Punjab Assembly pushed through the Medical Teaching Institutes Act, 2019, to remove civil service protections from healthcare workers.

A state of war implies harsh austerity measures and imminent sacrifice. This has already unfolded in Pakistan since the first case of a Covid-19 patient was reported in Karachi on February 26. On March 22, the prime minister announced that a nation-wide ‘lockdown’ (another conventional wartime measure) would leave millions unemployed. As the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus infections and deaths rises in the country, it becomes important to pay close attention to the terms being used to make sense of it. Are war metaphors really the best way to understand a phenomenon we have not even fully begun to comprehend?

“The world is at war with a hidden enemy. We will win”, US President Donald Trump tweeted on March 17, shortly after which he declared himself a “wartime president”. The mythological status of foreign invader and enemy of the people applied to coronavirus frames the struggle to save lives as a battle against an external agent. From conferring nationality onto a virus (Chinese virus) to racist attacks against Asians and Asian Americans, including a CBS News reporter, the effects of framing the pandemic through war metaphors are wide, varied, and unpleasant.

Following the death of a nurse working with Covid-19 patients in Gujrat, and the government’s refusal to test her, the Grand Health Alliance (GHA), a coalition of healthcare workers, held a hunger strike camp in Lahore on April 16. They were joined by unemployed workers, teachers, journalists, and students who expressed solidarity with the healthcare workers. They insisted that healthcare workers not be framed as soldiers being sent to war against their will, but rather doctors, nurses and paramedic staff who needed personal protective equipment in order to prevent themselves from succumbing to the illness. No amount of salutes and labels of martyrdom can take away the tragedy of a preventable death. The solidarity expressed with protesting doctors speaks of a resistance to the understanding that their lives can be ‘sacrificed’ in the ‘war’ against coronavirus.

Wartime metaphors for the pandemic take away from the many ways in which people come together to help and care for one another. On April 1, BBC reported how Pakistanis had stepped forward with zakat contributions to help those left unemployed get through the lockdown.

Wartime metaphors for the pandemic take away from the many ways in which people come together to help and care for one another. On April 1, BBC reported how Pakistanis had stepped forward with zakat contributions to help those left unemployed get through the lockdown. Leftist groups, Awami Workers Party and Haqooq-i-Khalq Movement, and a host of other organizations have stepped up efforts to ensure that laid-off workers are reinstated, compensated, and have the essentials required to survive a lockdown.

Why are we then so inclined to think through the coronavirus pandemic using wartime metaphors? Why do we think of disease through metaphors at all? Metaphors help us understand what is incomprehensible, in terms of what we comprehend. In that, they are powerful and transformative and capable of changing the way we experience a situation beyond our control. The war metaphor conveys a perilous situation that requires violent response even as fear and anxiety grips populations across the globe.

The use of war metaphors permeates various levels of discourse that circulate and shape our understanding of the pandemic. The explosion of conspiracy theories around the pandemic could be a place to investigate the insidious effects of using such language for a virus. Several videos on social media show religious clerics attempting to explain the pandemic as Jewish conspiracies, a punishment from God on infidel nations and so on. In the US, various segments of the population have taken this to a whole new level, blaming the pandemic on Corona beer, imported from Mexico, playing into the fear of immigrants.

Even as we know the telltale symptoms of a Covid-19 infection by heart – fever, dry cough, sore throat, trouble breathing, confusion, muscle pain, chills – there is a lot more that we still cannot explain about the virus. For example, we don’t exactly know why certain people remain asymptomatic and yet carry the virus that can infect others. We also don’t know, at least not in public discourse, about the virus’s rate of mutation and the practices that exacerbate transfer of the virus between species. Thinking through war metaphors certainly doesn’t get us anywhere near trying to understand and learn about living with microbes that erupt into recurring epidemics.

In her famous essay, Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag writes: “My point is that illness is not a metaphor, and that the most truthful way of regarding illness—and the healthiest way of being ill—is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking.” Perhaps it is time to call, and think, about the pandemic for what it is: a health emergency that requires global attention to systems of healthcare delivery services. The American healthcare system is globally renowned for being inaccessible to a majority of the population. With the highest number of Covid-19 infections in the world, the US still does not have the facilities to offer free universal testing and only those with medical insurance that covers Covid-19 tests can obtain them. This leaves a large segment of the population that are still getting massive bills for visiting testing centres. With Pakistan, under IMF obligations, planning to go the American way of privatizing healthcare, this pandemic is a wake-up call for the way we understand and imagine situations our systems are ill-equipped to deal with.

The writer is a graduate student of anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin and tweets at @SarahEleazar

Going to ‘war’ against Covid-19