Narrativisation is a central mode of communication and sense-making. As the coronavirus pandemic is unfolding and changing the world before our eyes, it makes a crucial difference which cultural narratives mediate our understanding of the crisis. A deeply problematic story of war has come to dominate the public imagination.
President Donald Trump has branded himself as a “wartime president” and calls the pandemic “the worst attack” ever on the United States. “We must act like any wartime government” declared Prime Minister Boris Johnson, while President Emmanuel Macron asserted multiple times in his recent televised speech that “We are at war.” Health organisations and the media have also adopted military vocabulary. Doctors and nurses are fighting on the “frontline” with an “army of volunteers” to help them, and we are asked to come together in a joint “war effort.”
It is easy to understand why the narrative of battle is attractive. It attributes agency to us at a time when we feel helpless, with few weapons to fight a virus with no cure and no vaccination. Instead of positioning us as passive victims, the narrative of war turns us into courageous soldiers in a fight against a common enemy. For political leaders, the rhetoric of war is a convenient way of conveying the gravity of the situation and justifying emergency legislation and the suspension of certain fundamental rights.
But we are not soldiers, and this is not a war. Using war metaphors to ascribe agency to patients, healthcare workers and the public as a whole is profoundly problematic.
First, to talk about patients “battling for their lives” risks implying that those who survive fought so hard that they made it, whilst those who fail to survive lost their battle because their fighting spirit wasn’t strong enough.
The same problem pertains to using the language of war in depicting cancer patients as “fighters.” As I went through grueling breast cancer treatments last year, I was struck by how often I was praised for fighting so hard. I had to deal, not only with the shocking prospect of never seeing my children grow up, but also with ‘normative optimism’ - the pressure to have the kind of fighting spirit that fits the culturally-preferred narrative of battling cancer.
But there is no research to suggest that a strong fighting spirit would help us to survive either cancer or the coronavirus. In fact, research indicates the opposite: military metaphors harm cancer patients. Those who recover from cancer or Covid-19 are fortunate but should not be praised for winning a successful battle, anymore than those who die should be blamed for not fighting hard enough. No one wants to die of these illnesses. Survival depends on access to effective care and treatments - subject to structural inequalities - as well as on biological mechanisms such as the immune system of the patient, rather than on psychological traits like courage or optimism.
The language of battle may lead us to support such assumptions even when we don’t explicitly think this way. For example, when Boris Johnson was treated for Covid-19 in intensive care, President Trump declared that he’d be fine because he is so “special” and such a “strong person:” “Strong. Resolute. Doesn't quit. Doesn't give up.” Are those who “lose the battle” weak people? Do they die because they give up?
As potential patients, we are urged to prepare for the fight by keeping ourselves fit and alert. This creates an illusion of control, as if catastrophe only affects people who fail to be strong and alert soldiers in the war against the “invisible enemy.” Most of those who become critically-ill with the coronavirus have underlying health conditions, we are told, often linked to less than optimal life-styles.
But the truth is that life is fragile and no one is invulnerable. Anyone can fall ill. I had no known risk factors and yet got cancer at a young age, out of the blue. It made me realise how much my life was governed by that control illusion. I thought that if I kept myself superfit, ate a healthy diet, had children young, breastfed them for ages and did all the other “right things,” then nothing could go this wrong. I never smoked and was never overweight, yet the cells started to divide in my breast uncontrollably. I simply had bad luck, and only time will tell whether the cancer returns. Similarly, in the current pandemic, we also have to learn to live with fundamental uncertainty and lack of control.
Second, healthcare professionals are crucial agents in the effort to stop the pandemic, but they are not soldiers. Doctors practice agency in making vital decisions about treatment and care as they try to keep patients alive. Researchers around the world are key agents in the joint endeavor to develop tests, drugs and vaccines. But what healthcare professionals practice is care, not war. Universal access to healthcare is essential to the prospects for peace.
The narrative of war is used as a legitimizing discourse. Wars inevitably have casualties. Wars require sacrifice. The narrative of war heroes is used to justify putting health workers at risk. It distracts us from structural inequalities, including the high exposure of low-paid women to the virus. Health workers are offered military flypasts and medals, even though they would rather get a proper salary and Personal Protective Equipment.
Third, the pandemic affects everyone, but just because working together to stop the spread of the virus has to be a collective effort doesn’t make it a war. The war narrative is linked to romanticized, nostalgic and false conceptions of conflict. The analogy is misplaced for numerous factual reasons, ranging from the impact of war and pestilence on the economy and the movement of goods and people to crucial differences between the sensory experience of armed conflict and the pandemic.
Resorting to the narrative of war means missing the opportunity to confront the complexity and specificity of the current crisis. It blinds us to the uniqueness, not only of how the pandemic feels but also of the social and economic challenges it engenders.
Not only is the analogy of war misplaced on factual grounds; it also misses the possibility to cultivate an imagination that builds on narratives of peace, solidarity and social justice - and to foster a more acute understanding of how we are all fundamentally dependent on one another as inhabitants of a shared planet.
This is an opportunity to embrace our shared vulnerability and destructibility. We tend to idealize agency when it is linked to autonomy, control and independence. But agency is also about the ability to respond to others and to their touch, thoughts, needs and affection; the ability to share experiences, anxieties and hopes and to be attached to, and care about, beings beyond ourselves.
Instead of seeing the pandemic in terms of destructive and divisive narratives like the “survival of the fittest” or nations competing in the war against the virus, shouldn’t we see it as a lesson on the fragility of life? The Queen asks us “to take pride” in the British response to the crisis, but isn't this a time when humility takes us further? If we turn away from the narrative of war, we can envision how a new global awareness of mutual dependency could give rise to a stronger sense of solidarity, which may help us build a more socially- and environmentally-just world for future generations.
Instead of narrating the pandemic as a story of war, we could narrate it as an open-ended story of a point in history at which humankind faces the opportunity to choose between different routes to different futures. We stand at a historical crossroads in which political decisions will save or cost millions of lives. While many leaders are resorting to the rhetoric of war, others are emphasizing the power of people in a democracy to work for a better and more peaceful future. In this moment we can practice our narrative agency by cultivating our sense of the possible, our sense of how things could be.
The future of humankind depends on the path we decide to take, and that path largely depends on how we narrate the pandemic and the lessons to be drawn from it as we move forward. Let’s make sure these narratives hold open the possibility we now have to leave behind an unsustainable way of life and to imagine a world based on solidarity and care.