clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
A mural near a hospital in Dallas pays tribute to nurses working during the coronavirus outbreak.
LM Otero/AP

Filed under:

Pandemics are not wars

There are better metaphors to describe what’s happening right now.

Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

In a tense moment near the climax of the 2016 sci-fi film Arrival, Louise Banks (Amy Adams) tries to explain to a military commander why it’s not just the words they teach to their alien visitors that matter, but also the framing and grammar they use to teach those words.

“Let’s say that I taught them chess instead of English,” she says. “Every conversation would be a game. Every idea expressed through opposition, victory, defeat. You see the problem? If all I ever gave you was a hammer ...”

“Everything’s a nail,” the commander says, suddenly catching on to her meaning. With Banks’s help, the US government has been trying to communicate with aliens, 12 groups of which have landed on Earth and are communicating with different governments. In China, linguists are attempting to teach the country’s alien visitors to communicate through mahjong, a game that involves tiles printed with characters, rather than the more complicated language of Mandarin.

But Banks says that a recent alien communication the Chinese interpreted as a threat may not have been a threat at all; it’s simply that the paradigm, the metaphor, through which they’ve been learning to communicate has a built-in bias toward concepts like winning, opposition, defeat, and wielding weapons.

Arrival applies this idea to a sci-fi story, but the notion that language shapes the way we think isn’t science fiction — it’s a widely discussed linguistic theory. The American linguist Benjamin Whorf, working in the 1940s, is responsible for the theory’s modern incarnation. After studying the Hopi language, spoken by Native Americans in parts of Arizona, he posited that they understood things that are part of everyone’s “reality” — for instance, the passage of time — in a fundamentally different way than Americans who speak English. (In Arrival, Banks explicitly refers to the “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis,” the name for this theory.)

Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner in Arrival, 2016.
Jan Thijs/Paramount Pictures

Banks is a fictional linguist, and Sapir-Whorf is a contested linguistic hypothesis, not a strictly rhetorical discussion topic. But I find the way she speaks about the chess “language” useful as a means of explaining something a little closer to home: the effects that the metaphors we use to talk about non-human threats — specifically pandemics — have on the way we as people confront those threats.

Why are we tempted to treat Covid-19 — the disease caused by the coronavirus — like a terrorist force, to not “let the virus win”? Why do we talk about medical professionals as if they are soldiers on the front lines of a war, rather than scientists and practitioners studying and caring for the health of others? Is it possible that saying “we are at war” prevents us from seeing all the ways we can both end this pandemic and prepare for the next one?

Are we framing our current struggle to save lives and find a cure as a deadly battle or game of chess, when it’s really something else?

War is a common metaphor for a pandemic — regardless of time, geography, or political persuasion

On March 22, nine days after he declared a national emergency, President Donald Trump spoke to reporters about the lens through which, after weeks of stalling, he had come to view the threat that the coronavirus poses to American citizens.

“A number of people have said it, but — and I feel it, actually: I’m a wartime president,” he said. “This is a war. This is a war. A different kind of war than we’ve ever had.”

He continued: “And when you look at the economics of the war — in the past, we used to stimulate to get people jobs. Now we’re stimulating to protect people because we don’t want them to work, because we want them to stay away from each other.”

There are plenty of reasons for presidents to position themselves this way, particularly in an election year: Presidents often see an uptick in popularity and public support in times of crisis. Trump has worked hard to make sure he is seen, at least by his supporters, within that framework. America is in a “historic battle to safeguard the lives of our citizens.” We are at war, “fighting the coronavirus on every possible front.”

Going to war requires identifying the enemy, something Trump has never had much trouble doing. Since the coronavirus emerged, he has repeatedly taken aim at old standbys — the “Opposition Party (Lamestream Media)” and the Democrats — as well as a range of newer targets, from China (and the “Chinese virus”) to companies like 3M to governors begging for more medical supplies for their states to a more nebulous “Invisible Enemy” he’s begun referring to in tweets:

“With the courage of our doctors and nurses, with the skill of our scientists and innovators, with the determination of the American People, and with the grace of God, WE WILL WIN THIS WAR,” he tweeted on March 28. “When we achieve this victory, we will emerge stronger and more united than ever before!”

Obviously, Trump isn’t the first person to use war as a metaphor for fighting a virus, nor is he the only leader to evoke war while speaking about efforts to save lives and find cures. The metaphor isn’t linked to a particular political party or persuasion, either: In his March 30 press briefing, Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has likened health care workers to “troops,” explicitly agreed with Trump:

In this situation, there are no red states, and there are no blue states, and there are no red casualties, and there are no blue casualties. It is red, white and blue. This virus doesn’t discriminate. It attacks everyone, and it attacks everywhere. The president said this is a war. I agree with that. This is a war. Then let’s act that way, and let’s act that way now. And let’s show a commonality in a mutuality and a unity that this country has not seen in decades, because the lord knows we need it today more than ever before.

Dr. Richard Hatchett, CEO of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and a former member of the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, has also said that war is an appropriate analogy for fighting the coronavirus. And he comes from a position of knowledge: In 2005 and 2006, Hatchett was the director for biodefense policy on the White House Homeland Security Council, and he was a principal author of the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza Implementation Plan.

Using war as a metaphor for illness during a pandemic or global crisis is not just a contemporary occurrence. “There is an ancient and cross-cultural tendency to frame disease in terms of war,” Lisa Keranen told me. Keranen is an associate professor of communications at the University of Colorado Denver and a medical rhetorician who studies how we speak about viruses and other biological threats. She noted that some scholars have located centuries-old uses in China of defensive and martial language to talk about defending your health.

J. Blake Scott, a professor at the University of Central Florida who studies medical rhetoric and has focused on the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, agreed. “There are lots of reasons why that metaphor took hold,” Scott told me. In fact, he said, war as metaphor for fighting a pandemic has bubbled up across human history.

“I think there are political reasons for that,” he said. “But more broadly, there are cultural reasons and historical patterns. Diseases accompany wars; we use military resources to combat disease and pandemics. Wars are thought of as winnable; you have winners and losers.” He also said that at times, people with diseases like cancer and diabetes find that war metaphors are empowering and effective in increasing morale. “That could maybe work collectively, too — there’s this communal mobilization,” he added.

And though you can’t scare a virus the way you can frighten an enemy, we still use that metaphor because it makes sense to us intuitively. “Even before we knew what a virus was, sickness is often cast as an invader to your system, something from outside,” Keranen said.

This is a phenomenon that the writer Susan Sontag explored at length in her seminal 1978 essay “Illness as Metaphor,” which was collected in 1989 with her follow-up essay, “AIDS and Its Metaphors.” Sontag writes extensively of the war-like nature of metaphors used for cancer:

The controlling metaphors in descriptions of cancer are, in fact, drawn not from economics but from the language of warfare: every physician and every attentive patient is familiar with, if perhaps inured to, this military terminology. Thus, cancer cells do not simply multiply; they are “invasive.” (“Malignant tumors invade even when they grow very slowly,” as one textbook puts it.) Cancer cells “colonize” from the original tumor to far sites in the body, first setting up tiny outposts (“micrometastases”) whose presence is assumed, though they cannot be detected.

And that has a warping effect in the “war on cancer,” Sontag writes: “The bromides of the American cancer establishment, tirelessly hailing the imminent victory over cancer; the professional pessimism of a large number of cancer specialists, talking like battle-weary officers mired down in an interminable colonial war—these are twin distortions in this military rhetoric about cancer.”

Yet metaphors are inescapable, no matter how apt, misleading, or simply inadequate they may be. They’re key to how humans to wrap their minds around phenomena they don’t totally understand. Sontag argued that we should try to resist metaphors for understanding illnesses (including AIDS), but convincing people to stop using them is an uphill battle at best. Anything mysterious, frightening, or unknowable will inevitably be stuffed into a framework drawn from something we do understand.

Humans have understood war for all of human history. So it’s no big surprise that the war metaphor keeps cropping up. Metaphors like this “might be comforting, or give us hope in some way,” Scott told me. “Or they might reinforce differences that make us feel like we can do something to be safer.”

Can we do something to keep ourselves and others safe during this pandemic? Sure. We can wash our hands. We can stay home as much as possible. We can donate money and sew face masks. We can promote and conduct scientific research, manufacture ventilators, care for the sick. We can pray, or engage in some other spiritual activity.

How will those actions aid our fight against the “invisible enemy”? We don’t know yet. Right now, results are staggered and uncertain. But in the meantime, repeating the war metaphor could hinder what we’re trying to accomplish, both now and in the long term.

Using metaphors of war brings the baggage of war

The usefulness of any metaphor is limited by default, since they use one concept to explain another that is not precisely the same. Language itself is full of metaphors, and we can never describe reality perfectly through language. Critics of the war metaphor argue that it is an attempt, unconscious or otherwise, to alter reality, to not see a viral threat for what it is. (Even the idea of a “viral” threat has become metaphorical in the computer age, some critics have argued.)

During my conversation with Keranen, she listed many reasons why the war metaphor can shape our ideas about how we should fight a pandemic — what we should do, what we shouldn’t do, who is to blame, and what gets left out of the picture.

One problem is that the “war” metaphor can cause people to stigmatize those with the disease because they can’t “fight it off.” Sontag wrote of this stigma toward cancer patients, describing the shame and lack of openness about options for treatment in the 1970s because of the stigma. “Even today, we talk about people whose immune systems are ‘weaker’ because they can’t fight off Covid-19,” Keranen said. “There’s almost a smuggling of some implicit blame in there for someone who is a victim of a disease.”

Framing Covid-19 or any viral outbreak as war can also influence the way we think about those who die. “It can imply that deaths are collateral damage and might just need to happen so that we can ‘fight on the front lines,’” Keranen said. “So if we’re prioritizing where ventilators are going to go, that means that they might go to New York and places that are seen as the battlefront, as compared to more rural areas.”

The idea of lives as collateral damage has taken root among some of Trump’s supporters, who have suggested that his greatest enemies — and thus the group aligned with the virus — are Democrats, as well as those who take strict measures to limit activity in order to save lives:

Furthermore, war metaphors are inherently biased toward power, aggression, and even paternalism. “It makes our focus be on fighting and not on caring,” Keranen says. “It’s not that we’re not caring for people,” but if we’re fixated on fighting an enemy, “that might put us in a framework where we’re less thinking about support and care and broader networks that we need to put into place.”

This mindset can draw focus away from scrutinizing broad preparedness and emphasizing its importance — perhaps counterintuitive, since governments exist in part to protect their citizens from enemies both within and beyond their borders. But using a war metaphor for a pandemic lets us minimize resulting deaths as inevitable, Keranen says. We were attacked, so deaths are “casualties” rather than unnecessary and preventable tragedies. “It shifts our focus away from government preparedness to individual responsibility,” she added. “If we all just wash our hands and stay inside, then we can do our part in this ‘battle.’”

There’s a geographic component to war metaphors, too, Scott says. And that component can reshape how we think about collective versus individual responsibility, leading to a “geography of blame” — the attempt to assign fault for the pandemic to one region, like China, Europe, or New York City. He pointed to Florida as example, noting that Gov. Ron DeSantis refused to close beaches to spring breakers for weeks in March but required people returning to the state from New York, New Jersey, or Connecticut to self-quarantine for 14 days.

“He’s shifting the blame that way,” Scott said.

A war metaphor can also have dark consequences. “If we look at history, during times of war, it’s often been the case that war is accompanied by abuses of medicine and the suspension of widespread ethical norms,” Keranen said, citing Nazi use of medicine or other public health trials that have been conducted on prisoners and war resistors over the years. “Especially now, we need to be on guard for this with the clinical trials and other product development that we’re undergoing, so that in our haste to ‘fight’ the disease with a military metaphor, we’re not giving away our fundamental ethical concepts and principles.”

Could ecology provide better metaphors in a pandemic?

People are unlikely to stop using the pandemic-as-war metaphor anytime soon. But is there a better option to articulate what we’re facing, to illustrate the challenge of caring for the sick and finding a cure?

There are certainly other metaphors. They’re imperfect, too. Yet just thinking about them can help us see what we lose when we resort to and rely on the language of war.

Another possible metaphor for illness presents healing as a journey or a river, which can remind us of the passage of time and the connectedness of everyone who embarks on the same trek or follows the same path. It also emphasizes the need for preparedness, since journeys involve mapping out a route and rivers typically remain in their riverbeds, which means their route can be predicted. Certainly emergencies and the unexpected can happen, but there are some obstacles we can anticipate.

Scott also suggested a metaphor that centers on an orchestra or symphony — built on the idea that responding to a pandemic requires everyone involved to be equipped to play their part, for everyone to have a role. “A lot of these metaphors blur distinctions between the self and the Other that war metaphors throw into relief,” Scott said. They emphasize the need to coordinate response, rather than only look out for oneself, and “they’re not focused just on causes; they’re focused on responses and preparedness,” he added.

Keranen explained that another problem with using the war metaphor for a pandemic is that it reduces the complexity of the problem and focuses us solely on “beating” the virus, without fully considering the factors that might have facilitated its proliferation — like deforestation and destroyed habitats that could contribute to future pandemics — or possible risk factors, such as poor air quality, that may make humans susceptible. “It really masks that broader ecological picture,” she said.

Indeed, everyone I spoke to while reporting this piece brought up the idea of ecology and microbiomes, not just as literal matters of concern with regard to the coronavirus but also as a strong metaphor for approaching the threat it poses to humans. Instead of thinking of this pandemic as a war — us versus them, humans versus invading virus — what if we reframed our thinking to imagine our goal as finding balance not only in the natural world, but in our social and cultural worlds as well?

Their suggestions made me think about The Biggest Little Farm, a 2019 documentary about the owners of a biodynamic family farm in California. Over an eight-year period, they came to see new pests or problems on the farm as evidence that something was out of balance, not simply an enemy to attack and destroy.

A scene from The Biggest Little Farm
The biodynamic farm in The Biggest Little Farm, where problems signal imbalance rather than an invading force.
Courtesy of Neon

Jodie Nicotra, an associate professor at the University of Idaho, praised the ecological metaphor as a strong one. Nicotra is writing a book on the rhetorics of microbiome science. “In one of the Democratic debates, Bernie Sanders was asked how he would respond to the coronavirus situation,” she told me. “He started by talking about universal health care. Joe Biden was like, ‘We’ll get the National Guard out and set up field hospitals,’ and so on. There seemed to be more general praise for Biden’s approach. But I think more ecological, community-based thinking — basically, the opposite of whatever we do now — would have probably prevented a lot of these issues.”

What an ecological metaphor offers that a war metaphor can’t provide — due to its dependence on drawing a line between winners and losers, between us and the enemy — is what Nicotra calls the “invisible connections” between things. “You don’t see how vast economic inequality connects to a virus, but it does,” she says. “You don’t see the webs of regulations and laws, or the production of equipment. You have to see that all of this stuff is bound up together and train yourself to see these connections between things.”

There may be strength in a variety of metaphors

In truth, metaphors are inescapable. We’re going to keep using them because they give us a way to imagine the world. They are a kind of grammar our brains rely on to operate. But that grammar is limiting nonetheless.

We’re less limited in which metaphors we choose. And so, while the war metaphor may have some use, it would be wise for us to expand our thinking and the language we use to express it. There’s no reason we have to stick to just one metaphor, regardless of what certain politicians might prefer.

“If we take as a premise that we, as a culture, acknowledge a distributed expertise or set of solutions for dealing with something like this, then that kind of opens it up,” Scott told me. “There are more groups, more people, more institutions to figure out responses. Those we thought of as experts at controlling risk haven’t always been all that successful. We need alternative ways of thinking in response to these things.”

We also need to maintain a healthy sense of skepticism when we’re confronted with a particular metaphor every day. Is it the only way to address the issue at hand? Are we flattening the problem in ways that benefit some people over others, or that lead us toward harmful conclusions?

We can still use the language of chess, if it helps. But we shouldn’t ignore the vast array of human experience just begging to be tapped to help us more thoroughly understand what the problem is and how we might solve it — even in a pandemic.


The Boy and the Heron treats growing up with the seriousness it deserves


Poor Things stars Emma Stone as a horny Frankenstein’s monster coming of age


George Santos treated politics like reality TV. And he won.

View all stories in Culture