Coronavirus and the war rhetoric

During this global pandemic and quarantine, we hear a lot of talking about a war-like situation. Sure, there are some similarities between the two emergency circumstances. On the other hand, psychology, strategy and social system play a total different role. For instance, the virus SARS-CoV-2, generically known as coronavirus, and its illness COVID-19 don’t act like a good soldier, with his pros and cons.

By the way, even talking about “war” is actually vague. Wars on a battlefield were nothing like trench wars, which are different from contemporary wars on international terrorism, the most common since 9/11.

Waiting for the daily dispatch with the number of sick or dead people recalls atmospheres that we thought they were gone for ever, at least in our lucky western side of the world. But there’s more that makes this war resemblance so (unfairly) popular and abused:

uncertainty of the future; the fear that resources will be insufficient; the idea of living a watershed, we’ll have to adjust to some changes, some of them might be positive; the industrial restructuring, to produce more medical equipment; the population desire to start over, all together, united, without ideological distinctions.

3500 people in France defy the virus dressed up as smurfs

If those feelings can be compared to a war time, all the rest can’t.

During World War I, the psychologist became a central figure, even if the importance of the troops state of mind was known since millennia. But in the Great War armies weren’t professional, the enrollment was massive especially among workmen and farmers. Dario De Santis, from the Psychology Department of the University Bicocca in Milan, wrote that the soldier of that time was the “tragic aggravation of the modern man”. The military organization was applied to any mass hierarchical situation, from big corporations to schools.

Losing battles wasn’t just connected to the war potential, also to the morale. Some aspects can be related to the virus containment, like discipline and keeping up the mind state. Like the soldier had to be sane in the foxhole, we have to fight boredom not to be overwhelmed by the anguish for an unknown tomorrow, especially those without working certainties.

We don’t have other humans on the opposite front, we have a virus which… doesn’t reason as humans! It’s not enthusiastic for victories and it’s not depressed because of defeats. It behaves according to a biological consistency, with random genetic mutations to adapt to the environment.

boris johnson governo di guerra

The British premier Boris Johnson, one of the most explicit in defining this situation as war-like

We don’t need to read classics like Sun Tzu The art of war, immortal masterpiece which still has an influence on business and economy, included the game theory. Even if it may seem that, in some parts, The art of war could be valid for coronavirus, like how to plan a victory. No need to be inspired by Machiavelli or by Karl von Clausewitz, the famous military theorist.

The British prime minister Boris Johnson first quoted Winston Churchill’s “darkest hour”, then expressly talked about a “wartime government”, when he understood that “business as usual” wasn’t possible any more. Better yet, it would have been counterproductive.

If wars demand action and high spirit, in a pandemic it’s best to do nothing at all (just staying at home) – doctors, medical personnel, researchers excluded, of course. And being optimistic doesn’t minimally change the possibilities of being infected.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defined this crisis as worse than terrorism – the kind of war we are experimenting in western countries since a few decades. But these two tragedies can’t be compared. They say we don’t have to negotiate with terrorists, that it’s important to maintain a normal lifestyle, our freedom, without fear, showing a bravery that could somehow discourage the enemy.

Now it’s not about negotiating with a virus, life can’t go on like nothing happened and many habits will have to be revised, especially if, like it seems, deforestation, wild animals trafficking, pollution and climate change are agents that make other pandemics more likely in the future. Dressing up like smurfs (in France) and gather to defy the coronavirus like it was a terrorist is not courage. It’s foolish.

Susan Sontag, Malattia come metafora

Susan Sontag, “Illness as metaphor”

The American writer Susan Sontag published in 1978 Illness as metaphor, in which she exhorts people to get rid of this rhetoric use of war metaphors to deal with illnesses. This goes for cancer, tuberculosis and AIDS, like she wrote about, it goes for COVID-19 nowadays.

“War-making is one of the few activities that people are not supposed to view realistically”, she wrote on AIDS in 1989, “that is, with an eye to expense and practical outcome. In all-out war, expenditure is all-out, unprudent – war being defined as an emergency in which no sacrifice is excessive”.

In this transfer, making illness look like a war facilitates the idea of pandemic as an atypical situation, cutting out any consideration for the structural aspects of a society. Which makes it all harder and scarier.


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