The pandemic is not a war, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the House of Commons earlier this month, although that didn’t stop him — as it hasn’t stopped others — from evoking the danger and destruction of wartime.
“There is no front line marked with barbed wire, no soldiers to be destroyed across the ocean, no enemy combatants to defeat,” Trudeau said.
“The front line is everywhere: in our homes, in our hospitals and care centres, in our grocery stores and pharmacies, at our truck stops and gas stations.”
Trudeau isn’t entirely wrong, say historians and communication experts, nor are other leaders who pepper press conferences with descriptions of nurses and doctors as soldiers going to battle or describe the virus as an enemy in need of vanquishing.
But experts do worry about the ramifications of widespread use of war metaphors to guide conversations around COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, which has now infected more than two million people globally.
“The context of war justifies all kinds of behaviours and interventions and loss of rights that we would not normally submit to,” says Sarah Glassford, archivist at the University of Windsor’s Leddy Library and a historian of medicine and health.
“We would do well to think twice before we frame this entire pandemic in those terms. Are there similarities? Sure. Are they the same? No. The words we choose matter.”
War as the go-to metaphor isn’t surprising, says Joshua Greenberg, a communications and media studies professor at Carleton University in Ottawa.
Metaphors are key to storytelling, and stories help “most of us make sense of elements that are beyond our control,” Greenberg says. War metaphors, in particular, have become ubiquitous, he notes.
People writing about diseases, particularly infectious ones, have long been drawn to them. We wage war against killer germs and we sorrowfully announce when someone has died from lymphoma or carcinoma with a battle-weary “she lost her fight to cancer.”
“Over the last several decades, war has emerged as the master metaphor for addressing all of our most urgent social problems,” says Greenberg.
“War on drugs, war on poverty, war on terror and, now, a so-called war on COVID-19.”
And while the war on drugs has been declared by global experts as a failure “with devastating consequences,” the metaphor itself isn’t entirely misused.
For Ian Mosby, the similarities between Canada in the Second World War and Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic are most noticeably reflected in the states of emergency enacted across the country.
“People are talking seriously about universal basic income, and I think that’s where the war metaphor becomes relevant,” says Mosby, an assistant professor of history at Ryerson University and author of Food Will Win the War: The Politics, Culture and Science of Food on Canada’s Home Front.
“In an emergency, things that had been unthinkable — rationing or price controls or command economy in the Second World War — become suddenly much more reasonable, and people begin to actually call for them.”
In other words, Mosby says, when faced with mass unemployment and rising prices that make the ability to pay rent and buy food feel increasingly impossible, traditionally more conservative people welcomed state intervention.
Mosby sees that already with COVID-19, as people welcome government intervention through initiatives like mortgage deferrals, the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and the suspension of evictions. He expects we may see even more come May 1, when the second round of pandemic rents come due and many Canadians can’t afford to pay.
“The level of social change has been so dramatic,” Mosby says. “Even the level of state intervention in the economy is comparable with the early years of the war.”
During the Second World War, mobilization mattered on a social level, he says, because it helped create “cohesion in really turbulent and upsetting times.”
“One of the good lessons from World War II is ordinary people want to help their neighbours.”
In that sense, military metaphors are useful, says Esyllt Jones, a history professor at the University of Manitoba.
“It becomes sort of a stand-in for illustrating the depth of a problem, how serious an epidemic outbreak was, but also this kind of setting aside of self-interest for the public good.”
Still, Jones says the metaphor isn’t problem-free.
Governments grant themselves extremely broad powers during times of war. But if a peacetime focus on respecting individual liberties is one side of a continuum and autocracy the other, Jones says military metaphors can nudge us further towards the latter.
Last month, the federal government passed an $82-billion emergency coronavirus support package, although not until the draft legislation was revised to exclude proposed measures that would have granted the Liberal Party sweeping powers to spend, tax and borrow money without Parliament’s consent for 18 months.
“The risk of that, in not a literal war but in a public health situation, is you start to move fairly quickly along the use of those powers,” Jones says. “Not everyone is comfortable with the potential scope of those powers.”
Military metaphors could move us further along that continuum at a time when Canadians should be reckoning with the consequences of underfunding our public health-care system, says Greenberg.
“We have chosen to elect and in some cases re-elect governments that have eroded our public health infrastructure,” he says.
“For decades, we have failed as a nation — as citizens who vote, as political leaders who make choices — to even properly fund enough acute health-care beds to keep up with population growth.”
As his Carleton University colleague, Frances Woolley, wrote last month: “A cold hard look at the numbers suggests our hospitals cannot cope with the most flattened of curves. Indeed, they cannot cope with any kind of curve at all.”
But rather than reckoning with that, Jones says using war metaphors propels us on a hunt for our so-called enemy virus.
“A virus often needs to be personified, and I think it’s really important that people think about the implications of personifying the virus, whether it be discrimination against people of Asian descent or looking for scapegoats,” she says.
Just look through history, says Glassford, and you’ll see that two features prevalent in almost every epidemic or pandemic are panic and the search for a scapegoat, which “can produce pretty awful results.”
Anyone deemed “other” because of their race, ethnicity, language or sexuality has historically taken the blame for outbreaks, she says, be it the Black Plague, smallpox, cholera, syphilis or the initial wave of HIV-AIDS in the late 20th century.
If there is a lesson there, Jones says, it’s that consensus, education and shared community are key — not policing powers.
“It’s hard to talk about public trust and co-operation on one hand and militarized language on the other,” she says. “To see it seep away right now is a little bit troubling as there are going to be some, hopefully not lasting, repercussions.”