By Sarah E. M. Hill, B.S.A.
World War III: a fight we never hoped to see, nor imagined would have come in form of a microscopic particle. To date, the novo-coronavirus has managed to cripple world leaders – not only from a health perspective but from a politico-socio-economic one as well. Globally, individuals are ill, isolated, scared, borderline-hysteric, and economically unstable. Meanwhile, media has curated a sensational military motif, waging war on our tiny, treacherous opponent.
Headlines read “A view from the front lines of California’s COVID-19 battle”; “Countries test tactics in ‘war’ against COVID-19”; “Former CDC director: There’s a long war ahead and our COVID-19 response must adapt”; “Super-rich jet off to disaster bunkers amid coronavirus outbreak”; “To beat COVID-19…”; and “Fourth-year medical students graduate early to fight COVID-19”; and so forth…
This diction of “front lines,” “battle,” “war,” “bunkers,” “beat,” and “fight” is not uncommon to medicine. In fact, much literature has been published on the use of a military metaphor in medicine. Most commonly, the “battle” against cancer is described in military terms. One can draw obvious parallels between the experiences. A patient with cancer undergoes a mentally and physically grueling course of treatment, so unimaginable much like the struggles of a soldier in battle. Both are threatened by death at the end of the “war.” Both “soldiers” have commanding officers: colonels and generals or nurses and physicians. Likewise, both have support teams – one’s unit or social workers and, ideally, family, friends, and other care groups. And, both must transition back to their normal following “the fight,” as traumatic experience taxes one’s ability to adapt. Therefore, generally, the experience of cancer treatment and military action can be paralleled; as such, the military metaphor fits the medicine well.
Moreover, in the last 120 years, there has been little time of global peace. While war may not be in every individual’s daily experience, the topic itself has been of quotidian discussion since the dawn of the 20th century, at least. As such, it is not surprising that the public has adopted relatable military language into common vernacular.
But, what good do these metaphors do? While some may argue that metaphors allow for niche, esoteric topics to become common and understandable by the masses, the military metaphor changes the focus of the task at hand. In lieu of treating patients, in use of the military diction, we fight disease. The subject of focus shifts from the patient to illness. In “combating” a global pandemic, this may “rally the troops” to turn attention to the covert, yet terrible villain at hand, and encourage the public to participate proactively in conserving and promoting public health. Nonetheless, it can also be argued that a military motif would elicit fear of an under-educated public. All of a sudden, we have a common “enemy”: the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. But, enemies elicit fear, especially when one is not prepared to fight.
When you had a nightmare as a child or felt scared of the monster under your bed or in your closet, you felt safe tucked in your bed, knowing that your parents were just down the hall. You felt safe in isolation. You were prepared to fight the enemy. Today, we are not prepared to fight the enemy. We do not feel safe in isolation. Self-quarantine has been compared to living in a “bunker.” There is much uncertainty in the world, and a war motif adds nothing to help qualm global citizens’ fears.
Instead, regarding our current pandemic, military metaphors further stir mass hysteria. Political leaders and media outlets should use their privileged voices to inform in lieu of sensationalizing. Every word should be of the essence, especially in times of global crisis. We should not waste our breath, ink, or pixels on a metaphor with such a high cost-benefit ratio. We should not correlate experiences of illness and violence. We should not anthropomorphize viral particles as combatant enemies. Instead, we should use the media as a valuable tool to educate the public on preventative measures, like social distancing, without qualifiers reminiscent of war. We should inform the public of the actions being taken to mitigate the economic crisis triggered by this horrendous event. We should comfort and empathize with those personally affected by the virus. Overall, our diction should not be one of global war, but of international peace and universal efficacy.
- Cohen, J, Kupferschmidt, K. Countries test tactics in ‘war’ against COVID-19. Science. 2020 Mar 20; 367(6484): 1287-8.
- Barry-Jester, AM. A view from the front lines of California COVID-19 battle. Kaiser Health News. March 18, 2020.https://khn.org/. Accessed March 21, 2020.
- Frieden, T. Former CDC director: There’s a long war ahead and our COVID-19 response must adapt. March 20, 2020. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/. Accessed March 21, 2020.
- Neate, R. Super-rich jet off to disaster bunkers amid coronavirus outbreak. March 11, 2020. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/. Accessed March 20, 2020.
- Collins, F. To beat COVID-19, social distancing is a must. March 19, 2020. National Institutes of Health. https://directorsblog.nih.gov/. Accessed March 20, 2020.
- Siddique, H. Final-year medical students graduate early to fight COVID-19. The Guardian. March 20, 2020.https://www.theguardian.com/. Accessed March 20, 2020.
- Strauss, A. Advice from a crisis expert on surviving a lockdown. New York Times. March 19, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/. Accessed March 20, 2020.
Sarah E. M. Hill