War metaphors used for Covid-19 are compelling but also dangerous

Image: FRANK GUNN/ THE CANADIAN PRESS

Author: Costanza Musu for The Coversation

The war-time imagery is compelling. It identifies an enemy (the virus), a strategy (“flatten the curve,” but also “save the economy”), the front-line warriors (health-care personnel), the home-front (people isolating at home), the traitors and deserters (people breaking the social-distancing rules).

Furthermore, it highlights the urgency that underpins drastic policy decisions like the closing of schools, the imposition of travels bans, the grinding to a halt of economies around the world. It appeals to citizens’ sense of duty and obligation to serve in their country’s hour of need.

This is certainly not the first time leaders and policy-makers have used the war metaphor to describe a threat that does not qualify as military. Think the war on poverty, on cancer, on illegal immigration, not to mention the war on drugs or on crime.

While highly appealing as a tool of political rhetoric, the war metaphor hides several pitfalls that, in the case of the Covid-19 pandemic, are particularly dangerous.

Using the war metaphor shuffles categorizations in insidious ways. For example, we are no longer citizens; we are now “soldiers” in a conflict. As such, politicians call for obedience rather than awareness and appeal to our patriotism, not to our solidarity.It is under the guise of these categorizations that we have already seen, across the world, shifts towards dangerous authoritarian power-grabs.