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Coronavirus and the language of war

We are using the language of conflict to talk about the current pandemic. There are many parallels, but the comparison is not exact.

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Are we at war with Covid-19? The everyday language used to describe the pandemic suggests this is the case. It is portrayed as a battle against a cruel enemy that must be defeated. At the “front line”, healthcare professionals put themselves at risk. In research laboratories, scientists endeavour to find a vaccine to repel the invading pathogen. Government ministers meet over Zoom in virtual “war cabinets”, while ordinary folk on the home front volunteer to do “their bit”. In Britain, the unavoidable comparisons are with the “stand alone” moment of 1940, to which the Queen alluded in her TV broadcast on 5 April, recalling the first time she addressed the nation as a teenage princess. This is a new age of sacrifice, resilience and collective endeavour.

The war theme is not unique to Britain. In China, Xi Jinping summoned the words and spirit of Mao Zedong as he declared a “people’s war”. In France, Emmanuel Macron adopted the mantle and language of First World War prime minister George Clemenceau when he put the country on a “war footing”. Donald Trump calls coronavirus a foreign threat (“the Chinese virus”) and pronounces himself a “war-time president”. Sidestepping any comparison with war, German Chancellor Angela Merkel nonetheless said that the challenge posed by Covid-19 is the greatest her country had faced since 1945.

There are obvious objections to the war analogy. The most persuasive is that it is offensive to suggest that those inflicted by the disease have been called to combat, as if their survival depends on inherent willpower rather than medical, social and economic factors far beyond their control. The Guardian columnist Marina Hyde recently made this point, quoting the late Deborah Orr: “The idea that illness is a character test, with recovery as a reward for the valiant, is glib to the point of insult.”

When governments use war analogies to respond to national emergencies they invite disappointment. Successive administrations in the US have declared wars on poverty, crime, drugs and cancer, only for those campaigns to dwindle without lasting victories. In all these cases the enemy was too diffuse and obviously incapable of negotiating a surrender. But here we have a specific virus posing a singular and severe threat. This may not be an enemy directed by a malevolent human intelligence, but it is still one that can move stealthily, hiding in people who show no symptoms of the disease, appearing in unexpected places, sometimes as a rampaging army and elsewhere with an occasional guerrilla ambush. 

This is why the present moment feels like a war – it requires the same resilience and appreciation of danger, as governments are obliged to promise that they will do “whatever it takes” to keep their people safe. They know that there will be a reckoning when the fighting is over and it is time to recover and rebuild.

There are similarities between pandemics and war, especially if a realistic view of modern war is adopted and not the model to which we are instinctively drawn, of a titanic life-and-death struggle in which the winner takes all. All wars place huge demands on the countries involved, with great pain and suffering, often without yielding clear-cut results. Like pandemics, wars can come in waves, as peace settlements break down and fighting resumes. And while Covid-19 patients and healthcare workers may take little comfort from being compared to combatants, soldiers themselves also tend to be embarrassed by heroic acclaim; they may have to make the “ultimate sacrifice”, but they usually accept the risk without enthusiasm and expect their commanding officers and political masters not to be reckless with their lives.

Indeed, the war-medical comparison can work both ways. McGeorge Bundy, the US national security adviser to John F Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s, once observed of “surgical” military strikes, that while they might suggest decisive attacks confined to the most vital targets, they would be “like all surgery... bloody, messy, and you will have to go back for more”.

Above all, the pandemic feels like a war because its course is measured in deaths. Part of the Covid-19 ritual is the daily release of figures of infection rates and deaths. When someone you know is included in those statistics, or the death of a well-known personality is reported, or when people talk about their own experiences and losses on TV or social media, the human meaning of the pandemic is thrown into sharp relief. But in most countries, including the UK, the numbers are now so large that they have become detached from the individual ordeals and tragedies they represent.

In management speak, death tolls serve as “key performance indicators”: a measure of how effective or not government policies are in containing the spread of the virus. But because of their importance as gauges of political action, death tolls may start to be viewed with suspicion not only for their inherent unreliability but also their susceptibility to official manipulation. Many epidemiologists and statisticians consider the current number – there have been 8,958 reported deaths, at the time of writing – to be an underestimate, partly because of the delay in registering those who died of coronavirus outside of hospitals.

There are also problems when assigning the cause of death. Since a high proportion of deaths comprise pre-existing health conditions it is hard to be sure of the contribution made by Covid-19. Alternatively, many Covid-19 deaths might have been missed because they were recorded as seasonal flu or pneumonia. It may not be the reported deaths that will eventually provide the most reliable guide to the disease’s impact but “excess mortality”, calculated by comparing the numbers of deaths over the months of the pandemic with the same months in previous years. 

These uncertainties help explain why some are suspicious the UK government is massaging the figures – either lowering them to avoid accusations that it has mismanaged the crisis, or inflating them to justify the extraordinary steps that have been taken to lockdown the nation. Well-founded allegations of under-counting deaths have been made against the authorities in China, Russia and Iran.

Here the war analogy is at work once more: historically, governments have been often reluctant to come clean with their people about losses in battle lest national morale is undermined and popular discontent grows.

The connections between war and contagious disease go beyond issues about the accuracy of reporting casualties or the temptations to tamper with the data. The two have always been closely related. Biological weapons such as smallpox, for example, when passed to Native Americans through infected blankets, left populations unable to escape subjugation, and diseases have often accompanied armies moving into unfamiliar territory. The challenges that Florence Nightingale faced as a nurse when she went to Crimea in 1854 were as much the result of outbreaks of cholera and typhoid as the poor treatment of wounds. The Spanish flu of 1918-20, which disproportionately hit young people, is believed to have originated in military camps. In 1918 more American soldiers died from the flu than the war. Until the middle of the last century, disease and non-battle injuries were as deadly for troops as injuries resulting from direct combat.

While official counts of war casualties tend to focus on the combatants, it is civilians who are often the main victims, whether from deliberate attack, collateral damage, or because their countries have been shattered by a prolonged conflict. When people are left malnourished and poor, with health systems broken, disease along with famine can be deadlier than the actual fighting. To exclude these civilian deaths would be misleading as to the costs of war, but including them usually requires estimates that can be little more than guesses. That is why the deaths arising from the civil wars of the past few decades are often presented in large round numbers with high and low ranges. The same is true with global pandemics: 20-50 million for the Spanish flu; up to two million for the Asian flu of 1957-58; 150,000-500,000 for the 2009 “swine flu”. With war, as with pandemics, counting the dead becomes more difficult as the focus moves from the developed to the developing world.

It may not always be wise to invoke wars when confronting pandemics, but there are legitimate comparisons that go well beyond rhetorical devices to spur on the national effort. Nor is it such a bad thing if the war analogy leads us to think in terms of a struggle that requires a contribution from us all. But unlike wars, which might be solved by peace negotiations, there are no political concessions that can make the virus leave us alone. There is no choice but to fight the best we can. Covid-19 is a universal threat. This is why, as we develop the responses we need to, we should veer away from the language of conflict and think in terms of cooperation in a global effort.

Lawrence Freedman is emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London