The Disorder Of Things

Are We at War? The Rhetoric of War in the Coronavirus Pandemic

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The seventh contribution to our growing collection of writings on Covid-19 and this moment of crisis. Federica Caso is currently a teaching assistant at the University of Queensland, where she also completed her PhD in 2019. Her expertise is on militarisation and war memory in liberal societies. She also works on the politics of culture, art, and gender. Her most recent publication is titled “The Political Aesthetics of the Body of the Soldier in Pain” which features in Catherine Baker’s edited volume  Making War on Bodies.


In this pandemic, the war rhetoric has spread as fast as the coronavirus itself. Recently, US President Donald Trump has characterised himself as a wartime president. Hospitals are preparing for war and healthcare workers are heralded as the frontline soldiers in the war against COVID-19. Economists ask how the coronavirus war economy will change the world. Wartime terms such as shelter-in-place, panic-buying, and lockdown have entered our daily and most mundane conversations.

The language of war is so normalised that in a recent episode of the New York Times’ podcast The Daily, a medical doctor answers questions from US American children about the coronavirus using war metaphors. We have come to believe that these children, aged no more than 6 and raised in ‘peacetime’ and prosperity, naturally know about invasion, bombing, weapons, and strategic warfare. We have come to believe that this is the best language to teach them about life processes.

It is important to pay attention to the language that we use to describe the coronavirus pandemic because it determines how we respond to it.

The War Metaphor

This is not the first time that the language of war is stretched to contexts that are not legalistically wartimes. In the last fifty years, we have heard of the war of drugs, the war on poverty, the war on crime, and the war on plastic.

War is a powerful metaphor. It is an effective, immediate, and emotive tool to communicate urgency to the general public. It also conveys a sense of struggle and righteousness that can justify exceptional measures.

The power of the war metaphor is derived from the role that war played in crafting the modern nation-state and the European model of the international system. Modern warfare is codified as an instrument of policy to protect the political community. In this dominant depiction, war is a measure that states take in the name of the nation to defend their citizens against a threatening foreign enemy. This is largely how we have memorialised war, and this is the type of war that we invoke when we deploy the metaphor of war.

The Power of the War Rhetoric in the Coronavirus Pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic is not only invoking metaphors from war, it is also unleashing war rhetoric. To clarify the distinction between war metaphor and war rhetoric consider the difference between the doctor hosted by The Daily that I mentioned before who uses examples from warfare to explain children how viruses work, and President Trump characterising himself as a war president. One assumes that children are familiar with the language of war more than the language of life, and therefore draws from the former to explain the latter. President Trump characterising himself as a war president is asking Americans to trust his abilities to deal with this difficult situation.

The war rhetoric presumes that we are at war when we are not to construct the realities of war. These war realities are invoked as a means of interrupting normalcy and call for exceptional measures. This strategy in the coronavirus pandemic has some merits.

The first invocation of the war rhetoric comes from doctors and health workers. For example, Italian doctors cry that the situation in the hospitals “is like a war”, and Australian health workers are preparing themselves for war. Here the war rhetoric functions to raise awareness about the challenges that the health system faces during this pandemic and the need for preparedness. The influx of patients and the shortage of supply and medical equipment are likened to wartime situations as a way of warning about the coming challenges to health systems worldwide.

The rhetoric of war is also invoked by politicians to compel compliance with orders designed to slow the spread of the virus. We are now all familiar with the expression “shelter-in-place,” which has its origin in the Cold War. Shelter-in-place evokes bunkers and nuclear fallout, and Governor of New York Andrew Cuomo has raised concerns that the expression fuels panic among the public. He is right and this is why the expression works. The language of war is imbued with fear, which makes it a compelling way to communicate when seeking obedience.

Finally, the rhetoric of war is enabling economic changes and flexibility that are much needed to face the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic. Economists are comparing the current unemployment rates, drops in market shares, and goods shortages to wartime scenarios. They are calling for wartime economic thinking to stimulate the economy and nationalise key services and industries. For example, in the US, the war rhetoric has tabled the need for the Defence Production Act, first introduced in 1950 during the Korean War, to support the production and distribution of medical materials such as ventilators and face masks. Given the fear around the nationalisation of industry and the spread of socialism in the US, the rhetoric of war might be a strategy to persuade the sceptical in the political class that the State must intervene in the economy.

We are not at War and We Should Stop Using the War Rhetoric          

While the war rhetoric is effective to communicate urgency and implement special measures, we are not at war. The coronavirus is not an enemy. It is a parasitic agent that attaches to living organisms to generate new viral particles. There is no war to be waged against such a thing, and we should consider carefully before continuing to use the war rhetoric.

The first reason why we should stop using the rhetoric of war is that it fuels hatred, antagonism, and nationalism. For example, tapping into the war mentality, US President Trump antagonised China when he labelled the coronavirus “the Chinese virus.” We are also witnessing the mushrooming of conspiracy theories that incite mistrust. Furthermore, cases of racism towards Asians in the West are also testament of the divisive attitude brought by the war rhetoric.

Secondly, the rhetoric of war breeds and legitimises authoritarianism. Fear is a tool of control. Frightened people are more likely to accept exceptional measures and limitations to their freedoms. For example, in Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has used emergency powers to extend his rule indefinitely. Several states around the world are implementing curfews with an increased deployment of police in the streets and ensuing police brutality. China is rolling out a new surveillance system that tells people when they should quarantine. Germany is developing an app that uses geolocation to do contact tracing. We will soon be confronted with the implications of this enhanced surveillance.

Third, as the war on terror taught us, a war with an elusive enemy is an endless war. A war against the coronavirus begs the question of how far are we willing to go to win, what counts as victory, and what are we ready to relinquish to win. After 9/11, the US introduced The Patriot Act which stripped Americans of many civil rights and freedoms in the name of security. The elusive enemy of war on terror has bred widespread wars in the Middle East and justified authoritarian measures in other parts of the world. There are lessons to be learnt from the post-9/11 rush to the war rhetoric that are instructive to avoid repeating another two decades of global violence.

Finally, the language of war authorises war behaviours and psychology. We are living in anxious times: people fear disease and death; many have lost their job and their business; we are keeping physically away from each other; services including mental health facilities and abortion clinics are closed; and we are watching the news as if it were the scariest TV series. When we embellish all of this with the language of war either to compel obedience or to give ourselves a boost of excitement, we also justify and encourage the fight or flight mentality and muscular, selfish behaviours such as hoarding toilet paper, face masks, hand sanitiser, and even guns.

Rhetorical Revelations

An analysis of the use of the war rhetoric during the coronavirus pandemic brings two revelations.

First, the rhetoric of a war against the coronavirus externalises responsibilities for the fact that our system is ill-equipped to protect people. For minority groups and poor people this is not news. But for the middle class and wealthy white people it is. The coronavirus is magnifying the deficiencies of our political, social, and economic system. It is forcing on us some of the questions that have long been at the fringes of leftist activism such as unemployment, prisons’ overpopulation, access to health care, mutual aid and community support, and funding for the arts. These were questions that before affected mostly minority groups and the poorer segments of society. Now, they affect most of us.

A case in point of how the war rhetoric externalises responsibilities is the crisis that the health system is facing today. We are speaking of medical workers as soldiers and of hospitals as battlefields. This conceals that the present crisis is mostly the product of our trust in neoliberal economic logics and in technological progress.

The coronavirus pandemic is revealing that our hospitals are highly technological but cannot accommodate large numbers of sick people. Since the 1980s, the development of medical technology and treatments for diseases that previously kept patients in hospitals, prompted a reduction in hospital beds. Empty beds are not cost-efficient. And even if now we can source beds from hotels and private hospitals, we still face the problem of the shortage of medical equipment such as face masks and hand sanitiser. The political economy of these shortages is rather common: many countries in the West have outsourced the production of medical equipment such as face masks and ventilators to reduce costs (the political economy of ventilators in the US is even more disturbing). It is no surprise that China, the largest world producer of face masks, is keeping them in the country to protect its own people and medical workers in the face of its own pandemic challenges.

The language of war conceals that the economic model on which we run hospitals and health care is deficient, if not sick. It implies instead that it is under attack by an external enemy. Viruses are an occurrence of life, they are not enemies. We can speculate that the coronavirus is here to stay, that it can come back, or than another virus like it will eventually emerge. We cannot declare a war every time. We must be prepared with policies and equipment such that life does not have to stop every time. The recognition that our health system is diseased from the capitalist logics of efficiency, cost reduction, and profit maximisation is the starting point to build resilient hospitals and medical workforce. Health workers should not be considered frontline soldiers. Life is not a battle.

The language of war devolves our own responsibilities further through discourse around the need to protect the vulnerable. We know that the coronavirus is more likely to kill the vulnerable. The elderly immediately come to mind. Initially, this information inspired the confidence that we could have kept running business as usual if we avoided contact with the vulnerable. This was the early strategy of the UK, for example. Soon we have realised that the extent of the category of the vulnerable is much larger than we could have ever imagined. Emerging data reveal that the vulnerable to the coronavirus also include those with weak immune systems, those suffering from hypertension, diabetes, cardiac ischemia, and chronic renal and lung conditions. We have been confronted with the fact that conditions such as diabetes, obesity, and depression, which are widespread in today’s world but are generally not considered life-threatening, make us vulnerable to death when compounded with a disease such as that caused by the coronavirus.

There is a connection between poor health and socio-economic conditions. Most cases of vulnerability are bred by social policies, which means that the coronavirus will hit some communities harder than others. For example, in Australia, this disparity is revealed by the health directives which indicate that while the cut-off of vulnerability for non-Indigenous Australians is 60 years old for those with pre-existing conditions, and 70 for those without, it is 50 for First Nations people. As Chelsea Bond explains, poor health in Aboriginal communities is the product of 200 years of neglect. While the health agenda focused on finding cures for diseases that were endemic in Europe and that were affecting the settlers, Indigenous people were denied access to medical treatment and control over their health agenda.

The rhetoric of war against the coronavirus puts the blame for sickness and death onto an external invisible enemy, while masking that in fact our current political and economic system is at the basis of many of the health conditions that make us vulnerable to this virus. The number of those vulnerable to the coronavirus due to underlying conditions suggests that the health agenda has failed us because of the politics of class, race, and sexuality. We are not at war with an invisible enemy, the head and lymph of our health system is sick.

The second revelation is that we are ill-equipped to deal with death. Charles Einstein suggests that we are not at war with the virus, we are at war with death. The triumph over death has been considered to be the ultimate sign of civilisation. Medical technologies that make us live longer are heralded as symbol of progress and make us believe that we have control over death. The coronavirus is challenging our triumph over death and we are fighting to reclaim it.

We are in denial of death and we cannot accept it as part of life. We are so possessed by the belief that we have to defeat death that when it presents itself, we do anything we can to avoid it, even if the price is human life itself.

This pandemic has presented us with death. To avoid it, we are asked to forgo human contact: no handshakes, no hugs, no sex, no gatherings, and no public life. We are living secluded in our homes, desperately attempting to make technology a viable substitute for our previous life. We Facetime our friends and family, use Zoom to teach, learn, and exercise, and invent new ways to date remotely. This works enough to avoid total isolation, but not to sustain human life in the long term. Indeed, this is a small and temporary price to pay to save lives. But how long can this go on? And what are the implications of this lifestyle? As hospitals prepare themselves for the worse, we are facing a surge of isolation, depression, domestic abuse, and alcoholism, all problems that we have to live with to avoid death.

The coronavirus is shaking the ground of our civilizational triumph over death. To be sure, people die every day and they died even before the coronavirus. Many people die of preventable diseases, domestic and intimate partner violence, and of hunger. While there are organisations, campaigns, and activities of mutual aid that operate every day to save lives, there are also structures of power that cause, benefit, or cannot care for the many who die of preventable death. This pandemic is begging the question of whose life matter – once again.

Coronavirus deaths were unforeseen and are threatening the legitimacy and efficacy of our structures of power. They are putting people out of work, affecting oil price, changing patterns of capitalist consumption, and prompting government to subsidise citizens and workers around the world. They are undermining confidence in the robustness of the medical, social, economic, and political system. This is why we cannot be in denial of coronavirus deaths like we are for other types of deaths caused by power imbalances and structural inequality.

A critical look at death worldwide reveals that many die from perverse operations of power. But we are all dying from these power imbalances. We can see this if we consider the bigger picture of the unfolding climate disaster. We are all slowing but surely dying. Life in the Pacific Islands is under serious and immediate threat from raising sea levels. Australia has witnessed a long and unprecedented summer of bushfires that is likely to come back. Draughts and famine are threating life in many African states. Levels of pollution and industrial urbanisation in Asia are alarming. The fluctuating temperature of the last few winters in Europe are affecting summer crop production. Scientists keep predicting how many years human life on Earth can continue as is unless we reverse the trends, 20, 30, 13, 50 years. And yet, we remain in denial of our own mortality.

The rhetoric of war about the coronavirus reveals that despite (or possibly because of) the scientific progress that we have made, we are clinging onto anything that keeps life going, no matter what kind of life. And with the war rhetoric in place, if we die, at least we die heroically, as if in war. Our rejection of death is making us blind to the question about what kind of life is worth living and what is worth living for.

Like war, the coronavirus pandemic is a collective trauma. The ways in which we have dealt with war traumas have instantiated various forms of structural violence: nationalism, state borders, toxic (militaristic) masculinity, muscular politics, economic competition, expansionism, and settler colonialism. And this is another reason why we must avoid the language of war to describe the coronavirus pandemic, for we don’t want another collective trauma to turn into an opportunity to instantiate more structural violence. In the face of collective trauma, Emma Hutchison invites us to consider the politics of grief to reshape our sense of collectivity. This demands that we name and face our injuries, negative emotions, and their sources as a way of integrating the experience in our narratives of communal life and adapt accordingly. Through the politics of grief, we do not re-enact the past over and over again; we empower ourselves to write a different future. We need to come to terms with the limitations of our systems of politics, economy, society, and beliefs that the coronavirus pandemic is showing us. These limitations are the source of our collective trauma and the items that we need to address to grieve and integrate the traumatic experience of this pandemic.

Modern day internet wisdom suggests that

If you are in conflict with someone and they are unaware, then you are in conflict within yourself.

This quote captures our so-called war with the coronavirus. We are not at war against the virus. As Annamaria Testa remarks, we cannot be at war with the coronavirus because it is not an enemy. It does not hate us and does not want our destruction. The virus is not even aware of us, and knows nothing of us or of itself.

Instead, we are at war with ourselves and the systems that we have created. We hate that the virus is stripping naked in front us the limitations of our systems, political, economic, social, and of beliefs. We hate that our health system cannot save us as we wanted and expected. We hate that, after all, screen time is not a very good substitute for human touch and company. We hate that once again we have to trust untrustworthy politicians to get us through this. We hate that the dreams that we built on the shaky grounds of our sick systems are becoming perverse fantasies. We hate that we have to relinquish again our freedoms and liberties for the fantasy of security. We hate to feel that the ground under our feet is crumbling fast and inexorably. If anything, we are at war with ourselves, just like a cancer patient might be at war with their own cancer.

But the language of war is no good either for the cancer patient or for the demise of the Anthropocene. This is not a war. This is a lesson and an opportunity to change ourselves and our systems and structures. The virus made visible the deficiencies of the status quo. It has made us hit pause. And it is demanding that we make changes. Going back to “normal” is going back to the same system that led us here. And this “new normal” of shelter-in-place, no human contact, and enhanced digital and police surveillance is a perverse fantasy of safety.

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