Trade Wars

Why we use the language of war to talk about the Covid

Much of the pandemic has been described in terms of a “war” on the virus. Communication expert DR ANDREAS MUSOLFF asks if such language is useful

Why do we talk and hear (and read) the Covid-19 pandemic so much in terms of war?

In the media and in common parlance, patients, hospitals, and entire nation states are “fighting”, “fighting” or “attacking” the virus, doctors and nurses “serve on the front lines” and use tests and vaccines as the “ammunition” or “weapon” of choice in the past 22 months.

This is not the case, however, that we only have at our disposal war metaphors to discuss Covid-19: other verbal images in the media speak of the pandemic as a “fire” or as a manifestation of natural force – hence the counting of successive “waves”.

And then there’s a whole field of containment imagery to describe countermeasures designed to keep the disease from spreading further: containments, bubbles, cocoons and circuit breakers, as well as traffic light restriction levels and systems. .

Among this range of images, it is the war-related metaphors that have drawn the most criticism.

They were condemned for having justified the loss of democratic rights, for having favored nationalist tendencies, as well as for having encouraged fatalism about the death toll of the pandemic, for example by compiling the figures of the victims.

Some of these condemnations follow on from earlier critiques of the use of war metaphors in earlier statements on the “wars on drugs”, or on cancer or poverty, none of which are known to have been. concluded with a sort of final victory.

Indeed, the scenario of a final victory following a decisive battle is in itself one of the most problematic implications of war metaphors, as it is unsuitable for long-standing social and scientific problems that cannot be resolved from the outset. one shot.

The promise of “final victory” gives rise to false hopes, and its declaration only serves politicians to boast of “mission accomplished”, like victorious generals.

Strictly speaking, however, such criticism is not about the metaphor in principle, but its use in specific circumstances. One harmless type of use is the routine description of a dangerous disease as an adversary that must be fought and beaten.

The Norfolk and Norwich University Hospitals website, for example, currently states that they “are honored that more than 400 medical students and retired NHS workers are already joining us in the fight against Covid-19”.

This use of the word “combat” as used here is clearly devoid of militaristic connotations or propagandist implications.

The development of war metaphors for specific persuasive purposes is different from such use of metaphor.

An important occasion for such use was in March 2020, when governments and the public realized the global dimension and the urgency of the Covid-19 threat.

Political leaders from many countries have rushed to state in public broadcasts that their respective nations are at war with the virus or pandemic.

They included Prime Minister Boris Johnson as well as then US President Donald Trump, then Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, French and Chinese Presidents Emmanuel Macron and Xi Jinping, and UN Secretary General António Guterres.

With the exception of Guterres who, as you might expect, pleaded for international solidarity, most other leaders have used these declarations of war to prepare their national audiences for strict social distancing and public health measures. and to ask for discipline and solidarity.

This latest use of the declaration of war scenario clearly served an emphatic persuasive purpose: to warn the public of impending danger, stress its urgency and urgency, and justify in advance the necessary restrictions that would result in the first wave of lockdowns.

At this point the metaphor was still completely transparent, after all the restrictions looked like similar measures, say curfews.

Therefore, we can read the declaration of war of Covid-19 as a so-called “argument by analogy”: just like in a military conflict, it is deemed necessary to restrict the uncontrolled movements and contacts of the civilian population and of to enforce respect, even in the at the start of the Covid-19 war, sacrifices had to be made by all for the protection of the community.

Acceptance of such an argument by analogy depends on the similarity observed between the subjects compared in the underlying metaphor.

For those citizens who judge the threat of a pandemic to be comparable to that of a war, the analogical argument in favor of respecting the recommendations of the government and of experts will appear plausible.

For those, on the other hand, who see it as a false analogy, war lockdowns and other restrictive measures will be unacceptable and will spark fears and conspiracy theories about the hidden motives of the announcers of war.

Another factor to consider when evaluating war metaphors is their actual reception among different audiences.

When Johnson made his declaration of war on Covid-19 in March 2020, he was compared in British media to Britain’s most famous warlord, Winston Churchill, and the threat of a pandemic with the Blitz, l Britain’s historic experience of resisting the threat of military attack from Nazi Germany.

These associations were reserved for the British public. They were not used in the American, French or German public media, although these also used war terminology extensively, but with different persuasive overtones.

French media, for example, have highlighted border closures and curfews as the main points of comparison between a real war and the metaphorical one declared by President Macron.

In Germany, former finance minister and now Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz made headlines for promising to hit the crisis with a “bazooka” of public spending.

In either case, the analogy to war was transparent and sparked little debate. In contrast, US President Trump’s declaration of war targeted the “Chinese virus” as the main enemy of war in the context of his more general conflict with China (which also included a trade war), and it was heavily lambasted. for its racist overtones, in the United States and abroad.

Some of its political allies even suggested that China had “launched” the virus from a secret biological weapons laboratory, which involved an act of actual biological warfare. This illustrates the danger that a metaphor exploited for propaganda purposes could be turned into a conspiracy theory with potentially dire consequences in real life.

Trump’s successor, Joe Biden, was therefore right to refocus the metaphor by declaring shortly after his election: “We are at war against the virus, not against each other”. Knowing exactly who the enemy is is essential, even in metaphorical wars.

Dr Andreas Musolff is Professor of Intercultural Communication at UEA

The covid lexicon

It’s not just war … Many other metaphors, comparisons and analogies have been used to describe the course of the pandemic. Here are a few of them …


England Deputy Chief Medical Officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam has become known for his elaborate metaphors when discussing Covid, often involving football. He described the early stages of the pandemic as, in various ways, scoring an equalizer in the 70th minute, a shootout and getting a yellow card.

Grand National

Sticking to the sporting theme, Prof Van-Tam described the effect of the vaccine rollout and previous restrictions as meaning Britain was in a ‘Grand National style race’ to defeat the coronavirus.

The trains

Professor Van-Tam also used the analogy of waiting for a train to describe the process of vaccine development. “What we need now is for people to get on this train and travel safely to their destinations,” he added.


Professor Van-Tam (again) discusses the challenges of having to store certain vaccines at -70 ° C: “This is not yogurt that can be taken out of the refrigerator and put back several times.”


Used by the Prime Minister to describe the strategy of vigorous response to localized epidemics as they arise.

The invisible aggressor

Another sentence from the Prime Minister, to describe the virus as a physical aggressor, to be put on the ground

petri dishes

An appropriate phrase used to describe places (such as cruise ships, airport queues, or even entire countries) that would provide conditions that are conducive to the spread of the virus

Crush the sombrero

One of the oldest and most vivid phrases used by Boris Johnson to illustrate the intention to take action to “flatten the curve” of rapidly increasing cases