“This is the frontline in a war,” begins BBC medical correspondent Fergus Walsh’s special report on coronavirus, filmed in University College Hospital, London. He speaks these words over footage of doctors armoured in blue and white plastic gowns, facemasks, and visors. The coronavirus-as-war metaphor besieges the language of world leaders, from self-proclaimed ‘war president’ Trump to Xi Jinping’s waging of a ‘people’s war’ against the virus. It has also invaded the language used on the news, on social media, and in our quarantined homes.
Who, exactly, is fighting this war? The doctors? The patients? Peter Openshaw, a senior doctor who has been treating COVID-19 patients, finds the metaphor harmful. He speaks of patients suffering from the disease who suffer a further sense of guilt and personal inadequacy, feeling that they haven’t had the strength to fight the virus, when the biological reality is completely removed from such psychological perceptions. Was it really Boris Johnson’s strength as a ‘fighter’ that led to his discharge from St. Thomas’, or, as he himself says, the hard work of the NHS staff who treated him?
Politicians like the Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Matt Hancock, and Donald Trump have all referred to coronavirus as an ‘invisible enemy/killer’. But while the war metaphor is used to turn coronavirus into a psychological reality, it is also causing psychological ills.
This is the argument of Susan Sontag’s long essay Illness as Metaphor, a study of literary and historical portrayals of tuberculosis and cancer, the most metaphor-addled diseases of their epochs, aiming for a ‘liberation’ from morally-charged metaphors which extend the spread of these diseases into language itself. A disease-turned-metaphor harms more than the ill.
What separates coronavirus from other illnesses is its WHO-endorsed status as a pandemic. Here, disease-as-war metaphors work both on a personal and a national scale; they can be read both inwards, as in Openshaw and Sontag’s misgivings, and also outwards, as a collective fight into which the healthy are also ‘enlisted’ or ‘conscripted’.
There are two war metaphors which are becoming increasingly tangled — disease as war, and politics as war. We should be mindful of keeping these separate. A point of contention around the House of Commons Brexit debates has been the use of military terms to describe political processes, the PM’s ‘surrender bill’ being a prominent example. Camouflaged within these metaphors are violent notions of division and superiority which are deeply unhelpful in public discourse.
One issue with the military metaphor is its misogyny — it implies that only men are soldiers, only men are politicians, only men are doctors. Deborah Tannen, in her outmoded linguistic theory of gender ‘difference’, associates language of collaboration with women, and language of conflict with men. A linguistic difference which has since been shown to reflect pre-existing gender roles. The use of this metaphor, overwhelmingly by men, perpetuates sexist stereotypes which not only harm women, but complicate political processes of consensus.
There is an aggressive, nationalistic quality that is attached to the war metaphor which, when its use is universalised, is undoubtedly dangerous. Although the prominence of the Second World War in the Queen’s address can be criticised, her call to “join with all nations across the globe in a common endeavour” is powerful. It cuts through the rapid-fire declarations of national war that have been made by so many world leaders, hasty to enforce their own political power. This is why I find the words of Fergus Walsh, and so many others, so incongruent — doctors work to heal, not to harm.