A few weeks after the outbreak of the coronavirus in Wuhan, Chinese leader Xi Jinping vowed, with typical communist party bravado, to win the “people’s war” against the novel threat. A month later, Western leaders began referring to the pandemic as a war, starting with French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, followed by America’s Donald Trump, boasting of his new grand title, “war president”, fighting an “invisible enemy”.
The war metaphor has a long history of rhetorical usage: the war on women, the war on science, the war on religion and the war on graffiti, as well as cultural wars and wars of ideas.
But it is the articulation of the war metaphor by governments, especially the US government, that has generated much controversy and even scorn, considering the abysmal results of the US war on poverty, the war on cancer, various trade wars, as well as the devastating war on drugs, the war on crime, and of course, the “war on terror”.
All of which begs the question, why bother? Why frame a public health emergency as a war?
The promise and perils of the war metaphor
Leaders tend to like the war metaphor because it grants them the necessary authority and legitimacy to declare a state of emergency, enforce exceptional measures and mobilise resources to achieve their objectives.
In that way, the pandemic framed as a war allows for containing the contagion through extraordinary but necessary measures, like closures and curfews – drastic measures which would not be acceptable in peacetime.
This is especially the case when the war metaphor is cast in the light of a defensive war, which by definition is a legitimate inescapable war to protect our own. We have no choice; the virus came at us in a surprise attack. We must retaliate; we must fight at any cost.
Leaders also like the war metaphor because war clarifies and simplifies. It helps unite and mobilise citizens behind their governments to fight an evil enemy during tough and testing times.
Citizens are more likely to accept sacrifices during wartime.
They do not necessarily understand viruses, epidemics and other complex public health challenges, but they do understand war and its implications, and are more likely to accept its terrible consequences, including collateral damage.
And, while this may not be a conventional battlefield, it can be argued that doctors, nurses and many others are in fact the foot soldiers fighting at the “front lines” of the pandemic.
But these medical professionals have dedicated their whole lives to saving lives, not ending them, as in war.
Which brings me to the counterarguments.
Both progressive and conservative critics of the pandemic framed as a war reckon war metaphors allow leaders to do not only what they must, but also whatever they want.
President Trump, for example, is using the war pretext to lift certain regulations, impose new restrictions on immigration, and even settle scores with the US Postal Service, which he would like to see privatised. And Hungary’s Prime Minister Victor Orban managed to obtain new sweeping powers to “fight” the coronavirus.
“We are at war,” limits freedoms and undermines accountability, requiring citizens’ compliance, obedience, and loyalty, which are not as easily enforceable in peacetime.
War exaggerates fear and encourages fear-mongering at a time when panic is counterproductive, and caution and cooperation are required.
Blaming an aggressive, offensive and unrelenting virus for starting the war undermines accountability – as when President Trump claimed, falsely, that no one knew the pandemic could happen on such a scale.
The critics also argue that the pandemic as war is inherently a macho paternalistic concept, biased towards power instead of compassion, focusing on “fighting” rather than healing.
Unnecessary, preventable mortalities become “casualties of war”.
Thus, when Trump and his supporters demand the “liberation” of certain states from their reluctant governors and demand an early “return to normal” by reopening the economy, they merely see the potential rise in mortalities as the inescapable “collateral damage” of war.
One such enthusiast, a celebrity doctor no less, told Fox News that the idea of reopening schools was “an appetizing opportunity”, after referring to a medical journal “arguing that the opening of schools may only cost us 2 to 3 percent in terms of total mortality”.
Trump as the medic-in-chief
Such madness takes a whole new form of national tragicomedy, when the commander-in-chief insists on acting like the “medic-in-chief”, boasting of his medical perceptiveness and forcefully and repeatedly suggesting unproven remedies to COVID-19.
The sad hilarity was in full view during last Thursday’s White House briefing, when Trump suggested possibly hitting the body with a “tremendous – whether it’s ultraviolet or just very powerful light, or bringing the light inside the body, either through the skin or some other way” and theorised on injecting disinfectant to knock the virus out “in a minute”.
The president’s rather disingenuous attempts at backtracking on some of his bizarre medical predictions have not stopped him from making new ones.
But might there be a method to the madness, a plan behind the erratic behaviour?
Trump’s political intrusion into the medical and scientific realm may be overly theatrical and narcissistic, and somewhat dangerous, but it is his underlying politicisation of the pandemic that is most disturbing.
Referring to COVID-19 first as the “Democrat’s hoax” and later as the “Chinese virus”, and attacking the credibility of the World Health Organization, Trump is trying to score a point more than make one.
Other leaders have also politicised the pandemic, albeit more implicitly.
The Chinese leaders may not have created the virus, but they have contributed to the spread of the contagion with their habitual secrecy, concealment, and prioritisation of politics over health.
The UK’s Johnson also stands accused of politicising the response to the pandemic by imposing his political adviser on the presumably independent Scientific Advisory Group, SAGE, tasked with advising the government on the pandemic.
The list goes on.
In short, a pandemic is seen as far too important to be left to the scientists, just as war is seen as too important to be left to the generals.
Well, because it has major social, economic, political, and geopolitical side effects that go well beyond the doctors and scientists’ remit.
The pandemic as World War III?
Leaders know that their political futures are at stake and depend on how they handle the pandemic’s economic and social fallout, especially in an election year, as is the case in the US.
Likewise, the pandemic could tip the balance of power in favour of one state over another. This is especially true for the world powers, considering the fact that the pandemic’s economic and geopolitical ramifications go beyond the realm of medicine and science.
This is manifested in the international consensus that unless a solution is found fast, the coronavirus pandemic will result in drastic economic and geopolitical changes comparable to those produced by World War I and World War II.
This explains why major powers like China have come to see the pandemic as a potential game-changer and have kept an eye on its endgame as the outbreak has gotten worse.
It is also the case for the US, the world’s foremost superpower.
Trump’s detractors see a future similar to that following World War I, where his administration’s poor response to the pandemic accelerates the economic and geopolitical decline of the US and the breakdown of global cooperation, leading to great-power discord and international upheavals.
Admirers of Trump’s performance, on the other hand, see a post-World-War II scenario at play, with the US emerging strong and healthy, in contrast to a ravaged Europe, and leading an era of expanding not shrinking liberal globalisation.
This scenario also could mean the beginning of a new Cold War between the US and China, albeit different from the one that emerged after World War II.
Looking beyond the war rhetoric
Speaking of World War II, it is rather interesting that the leaders of Germany, Japan and Italy, the three instigators and losers of that horrific war, have, from what I could gauge, steered away from referring to the pandemic as war.
Indeed, the German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier has insisted this is not a war, but rather the “test of humanity”, in an indirect response to Macron’s “we are at war” statement. But the French leader, it needs to be said, has also emphasised solidarity, cooperation and the humanisation of capitalism as ways forward for a post-pandemic world.
Indeed, this is not a war, even if it feels like one. Besides, viruses do not surrender. Ever.
They only mutate. And there is no way of knowing how or when this pandemic will end.
We can only hope the scientists succeed soon, but that will not necessarily stop the politicians from failing.
Remember the “war on HIV”?
Since the 1980s, the virus has infected more than 74 million and killed 32 million people, mostly non-Westerners, mostly after the scientists found a treatment to control the virus in the mid-1990s. Tragically, some 770,000 people died from AIDS in 2018 alone.
So, while we are succeeding brilliantly in killing and destroying each other in real wars, judging from the historical record, we have largely failed to save one another in metaphorical wars.
So then why resort to war, again and again, expecting a different result?
Insanity? Greed and power?
Naive optimism, that wars do work in the long term?
Or, is it that wars are a justifiable means towards a superior end?
Perhaps, I could weigh in on in the coming weeks.