Covid and the language of war

Language is important – it shapes our understanding of the world; it helps us make sense of what is happening around us; it sets the scene for how we will deal with it.

Which is why using the metaphor of war will not help address the pandemic.

Since the start of the corona pandemic, many leaders evoked the language of war to speak about the virus. Trump described himself as a wartime president, and that we are waging war against the virus. Boris talked of a “blitz spirit”, and Xi made it clear that it is waging a people’s war against the virus.

South Africa did not escape this. South Africa is waging war, our president as commander in chief showed up in military regalia, and we have a very militaristic sounding National Corona Command Council that guides the process.

While using the language of war can indicate seriousness and galvanise quick support, it is a dangerous metaphor to use.

The coronavirus transcends borders. It calls for collective mobilisation, not for the taking up of weapons, killing, and the dehumanisation and othering that usually goes with wars. It requires the state to attend to the issue by giving the state invasive war powers.

Addressing it will not come when one basks in national glory, in the name of the state, to the exclusion of others. While the state does have a vital role to play in this, especially in terms of organisational capacity and skills, it is by collectively doing our bit, that we address the issue.

Because war is chaos. War induces fear, and fear justifies military intervention to ensure social control. Using violent language on people who are already anxious is not helping.

And even more, Cicero warned: in times of war, the law falls silent.

War language allows, and excuses, aggressive interventions, and the use of the military to address the issue. It expects clumsy government action. War evades the difficult questions we need to ask about accountability.

A military structure is hierarchical. Soldiers may not question orders from the top. The commander in chief mobilises people through authority. But, it is our humanness and our instinct for collaboration that should be relied on in addressing the problem, not militant orders with little accountability.

Related to this is calling the frontline workers the soldiers. It becomes problematic when they rightfully question the lack of personal protective equipment. Heroes sacrifice their lives, no questions asked. We should have an appreciation for frontline workers. But many of them did not do this because of a call to take up arms; it is because it is their job. They often do this because they have no choice. They do not have to sacrifice themselves; no questions asked.

War is also divisive, and it justifies the blame game, the closing of borders. It divides communities. Winning the war becomes necessary for the post-war reconstruction of the geopolitical environment. It becomes a political game. The war metaphor does not help build safe and peaceful communities that respect the human rights of others and treat each other with dignity.

And while the war metaphor might be helpful to show the urgency of the matter and to muster support, it cannot be sustained. It does not tell us what to do. In fact, by doing nothing, by staying home, we are doing something. We are not undermined by a war that is outside our powers.

And words matter.

Instead of the language of war, why not just rely on science, communicated in ways that people understand? Call on people to come together because we face a common danger.

Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of the WHO, used football as a metaphor, where winning the match is not only about defending but by attacking. The Danish Queen called it a dangerous guest and asked to show togetherness by keeping apart. Angela Merkel of Germany stated that the situation is dangerous, asking for Germans to “[t]ake it serious” and that facing the challenge “depends so much on our collective solidarity”. Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, using science and empathy, asked the people to “be strong [and] kind”.

Covid-19 will be with us for probably the next year or two, in one form or another. It is time to ditch the wartime language and utilise the science in a kind and empathic way to guide actions.

* This was first published on on 4 May 2020