Coronavirus: Stop calling this a war. It’s unhelpful and dangerous
The most obvious danger of the war analogy is the threat posed to our human rights
Street art in Dublin. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
In declaring the lockdown in France, President Macron declared war on Covid-19. When we discuss the pandemic, we use language normally associated with warfare: defeat, enemy, front lines. Medical personnel in our emergency departments have said they are working in conditions akin to those of open conflict.
We cannot imagine the trauma medical professionals endure as they watch people suffocate and die alone, or as they make unthinkable decisions between one human life and another. No doubt they make this comparison to impress upon the rest of us the horror and urgency of the situation.
But the war analogy is not only unhelpful, it is dangerous. It forces us to accept things we should not unthinkingly accept, and it blinds us to the solutions to this crisis. The pandemic is as great an ill as war, yes. But it is different to war, and our response should also be different.
The war analogy means thinking along divisive lines and forgetting our shared humanity. That is the last thing our society needs right now
Behavioural scientists agree that empathy is the only emotion likely to spur us into the kind of altruistic action needed now. Not fear, not anger. So why are world leaders choosing a metaphor that engenders militancy and taking up arms, the very opposite of what is needed?
Many will say that we need to unite against a common enemy to make the collective changes needed. But behavioural scientists also say that what humans need to spur us into collective action is a shared goal and a shared strategy.
In this scenario, the goal is clear: to save lives. The strategy is easy to understand and easy to implement: flatten the curve by staying at home. What most of us need to do now is to be very, very still for a while.
The most obvious danger of the war analogy is the threat posed to our human rights. Across the world, would-be dictators are using the crisis to usher in emergency legislation that will survive long after the pandemic ends. In a desperate irony, across Latin America, where the social contract is weak, people protest what they see as yet another power grab. In Ireland our legislation includes a sunset clause but experts protest the lack of other safeguards for our rights.
But there is another, more subtle danger. In war the enemy is always different, always other. In some conflicts divisions are cast along religious lines; in others nationality is the dividing factor; in yet others it’s ethnic. Warmongering leaders, as they attempt to hoard wealth and distract from domestic problems, emphasise imagined differences and strip our “enemies” of their humanity.
Words and language matter. They infect our thinking. The war analogy means thinking along these divisive lines and forgetting our shared humanity. That is the last thing our society needs right now.
When we focus on the imagined divisions between us, we may think there are those we can leave behind. We may think we don’t need to provide shelter and sanitation to anyone who does not have it.
We must support those who are vulnerable to the disease as well as those at high risk of contracting it
But in our lifetimes, it has never been so clear that human beings operate as a single entity. If one of us is sick, we are all sick. The virus does not recognise our perceived differences. It does not respect power, wealth or race – though these privileges may help some of us run from it.
The belief that we are at war may also dull our critical instincts. Going to war is often a strategy intended to unite people behind their leaders, thereby quashing dissent. In a pandemic we need to feel free to challenge those who choose strategies not supported by science. We must be free to urge our politicians to protect everyone, particularly those on the economic margins, from the virus. In a pandemic both our compassionate and our critical faculties must be fully engaged.
There is no need to imagine we are fighting an invisible enemy. If the virus can be cured, it is through rest or with medical care. We are protected from it through compassion – by ensuring everyone has shelter and access to running water.
We know the solution to the pandemic lies in unity and empathy, even if at a distance. For our heroic medical professionals and essential workers, it means taking great risk to care for others. We must support them however we can. And we must support those who are vulnerable to the disease as well as those at high risk of contracting it. We must slow down, look after each other and remember that our differences are imagined.
And when the time comes, we can embrace each other in the warmth of our shared humanity.