Pandemic as War: A Dangerous Frame

News coverage, twitter comments, and interviews have featured people from all walks of life describing the current pandemic through language we typically with armed conflicts. Covid-19 is our enemy, we must forgo peace time luxuries to support those fighting on the front lines. It’s a compelling and easily understood narrative which has been reinforced by decades of participation in various conflicts around the world. We’ve internalized these scripts, sets, and the roles we’re expected to play.

However, stretching the metaphor of war over the context of a medical pandemic has made apparent its limitations. How does the struggling business owner eager to reopen fit within this frame? The civilian in a grocery store carefully examining an apple in their bare hand while showing symptoms? The protester angrily denouncing the limits imposed on their freedom? If war is how we’ve chosen to perceive this challenge, our options are limited.

The militarized frame some have chosen to describe the pandemic obscures and oversimplifies the complexities of a serious global medical challenge. 

War time rhetoric paints indiscriminately over those complexities, replacing detail with a black and white image, what is right and what is wrong, us and them. An individual coughing in the supermarket becomes your enemy. Those who dissent, regardless of stance, suffer the same fate. The frame of conflict and its vocabulary become ideological prisons starved of the specificities which nourish intricate and unique social and material relations. In their place we find a coarse two-dimensional caricature of a once rich and vibrant past. The protester and the counter protestor have become mortal enemies locked in a bitter struggle for life and death.

At this stage, we become opportune targets for ideological capture.

It would be foolish to dismiss the possibility that some may seek to take advantage of the crisis for their own benefit. The amplification and exploitation of existing and emerging divisions, real or imagined, in the service of economic or political motive is already underway. Our emotional investments in the defense of freedom, political causes, the economy, and life itself are seized and repackaged along partisan line to be used as weapons against one another. Stepping back from these positions becomes increasing difficult. As we further entrench ourselves along lines engineered by those with ulterior motives, admitting fault, no matter how small becomes indistinguishable from failure and death. At this stage, re-examining your position, if not the legitimacy of the division itself, would require herculean effort. The battle lines have been drawn and retreat is not an option.

Who are “us” and “them” exactly?

The words and concepts we choose to describe the challenges we face determine the tools we will have at our disposal engage with those challenges. We should be careful not to limit our ability and capacity to respond to a medical crisis which permeates social, economic, and economic relations with language used to facilitate death and destruction. Ultimately, engaging with this challenge through the frame of war will inevitably see the cultivation of divisions where none should exist.



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