COVID -19 and War Terminology of World Leaders

In speeches, dialogues, conversations and TV commentaries, the usage of war metaphors to describe anything related to the COVID-19 pandemic are being deployed. These include “war cabinet” and, implicitly, “threat.”[i],[ii]This assists in projecting a perception of the extraordinary circumstances that are facing our reality today. Hundreds of millions cannot get out of their homes in the face of lockdowns across the world, exacerbating harm to those at risk of violence within their homes.[iii]Employees and would-be workers are now either facing bleak futures with their job at hand intact or are facing income-stressed planning due to the issuance of pink slips. Daily wagers have been dealt a harrowing hand with their already fragile livelihoods and loved ones being put at an even greater risk due to lockdowns and the pandemic, and doctors and other healthcare practitioners are putting in non-stop, tireless shifts, without appropriate protective equipment at times, towards efforts to provide requisite medical aid, while risking their own lives. In the face of these grave and starkly war-like circumstances of existence, the usage of military language does convey the seriousness of the situation at hand.

Logistical Harnessing

Such language assists in communicating the efforts of exceptional mobilisation of resources required during the pandemic. Whether it be financial help to those most in need of the same or testing kits for the COVID-19 virus or pharmaceutical products or daily essential rations, the current predicament calls for urgent reorganisation, planning, deployment and utilisation of resources at an unprecedented scale. This ‘all-hands-on-deck’ cry also extends to the harnessing of available mental and humanitarian strength and fortitude. While physical distancing has been mandated to be followed, social and interpersonal solidarity are what is required as well. The magnitude of the current crisis and the measures to move past the same therefore do represent opportunities to militarise the construction of the response to the pandemic by world leaders and decision makers and offers to them a chance to rise up as heroic commanders. 

“We are at war,” Emmanuel Macron, the French head of state, declared over and over in an address to the nation in the mid of March.[iv]Even WHO’s leader, Director-General of the international body, Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, declared that the human populous is now at war.[v]Closer to home, PM Modi, too, used a literary reference to Mahabharata to rally up the response to COVID-19.[vi]Further, scientific experts across the world and commentators now routinely resort to wartime images and language to describe the COVID-19 pandemic.[vii]

Urgency of the Situation

Another argument in support of this conveying and imagery is that, when decision makers invoke such language, they do so in order to create urgency among the public for them to take the requisite action. Many nations were slow in responding to the crisis and, now, the chief amongst them, the US, has come to regret its erstwhile irresponsible decision-making.[viii].When the severity of the outbreak finally began to sink in though, with large swathes of countries’ populations not heading calls of physical distancing, heads of nations seized on terms such as “battle plan”, “enemy”, and “people-driven war”, as a means of calling to action citizens who seemingly were not aware of the crisis situation at hand.[ix],[x],[xi],[xii].[xiii].

By framing the pandemic in military language, governments are conveying the gravity of this pandemic – a situation that requires significant disruption, interruption and personal sacrifice. However, drawing this unfit comparison has the repercussion of causing panic, stress and fear, too.[xiv]The phenomena of panic buying, hoarding and disaster capitalism are a direct consequence of the same as well. In fact, defining this crisis and accordant responses in war terms may achieve the opposite of what is required. In this ‘war’, after all, most people are being told to stay indoors, and not mobilise. An objective that would be that much more obtainable if framed through the lens of solidarity.

Curtailment of Human Rights

Around the world, leaders limited human rights in the name of enactment of emergency powers in order to try and limit the spread of the coronavirus. Essential and basic fundamental rights such as freedom of movement and in some cases, freedom of speech, have been curtailed in the process.[xv]From Peru to Italy, to India and the US, troops took to the streets and penalties were levied and inflicted for not adhering to the restricted behavioural norms. In the face of gross miscommunication, privacy impinging tracking technologies and unjust punishments, claiming to be upholding safety but instead propagating fear, politicians refer to a threat from an ‘invisible enemy.’[xvi]They recognise collateral damage but only so much that it is unfortunate and inevitable, akin to the inhumane fallout from war. Some ‘innocent’ victims of the pandemic, like those left jobless and homeless by unjustified and repressive government decrees, are more innocent than others.

One might argue that, given the political systems in place as the virus hit, states have a crucial role to play in dealing with the public health crisis, given their organisational capacity. Some might say that it was war-making that actually conceptualised the modern nation state.[xvii]However, setting out the response to COVID-19 using war terminology buttresses the state and its power, establishing a dangerous precedent not only in the current times but for the foreseeable future as well. Other organisations matter too, though, and are equally responsible for ensuring an appropriate response to the pandemic. From grassroots networks and local municipalities to regional organisations and the World Health Organization, all can be called upon for extending help and solidarity. Military metaphors, however, either conceal their humane contributions or co-opt them by describing their efforts in military terms.

Language of Solidarity

The notion that language shapes the way one thinks is a widely discussed linguistic theory.[xviii]Language matters. It reinforces particular suppositions about how the world works, and sidelines others. Framing political issues in the language of war normalises the usage of defence forces and entrenched military, up-down hierarchies.[xix]Rather than examining the deeper structural problems that caused such crises, when the next one comes along, such language ensures that valorous national militarised mobilisation will be our go-to trump card. Politicians and world leaders can then muster this messaging for their own political agenda later on, putting in place a dangerous and vitriolic precedent and environment, such as an anti-Chinese or anti-Muslim one.[xx],[xxi]

One could just as easily, though, favour narratives of the evolving situation in calmer scientific or solidarity terms. Suggestions concerning war need not be used to construct a story of the human race naturally coming together when faced by a testing situation. Indeed, instances of mutual cooperation springing from one’s networks and social media towards the establishment of grassroots and aid-giving communities for those disenfranchised can be spread. People have organised within cities and regions – but also across nations – to assist each other without needing to call it a ‘war’ or military ‘duty’. The sensibilities and language of mutual aid and solidarity work just as well.

The analysis of current events around particular socio-economic classes, such as daily wagers, hitherto gig economy workers but now essential service providers and healthcare practitioners, in every country affected by the virus would establish the seeking of searching questions about working conditions, sustainability, homelessness, universal income and healthcare support, amongst others. The same, while not being a panacea to all problems, could certainly help in building and constructing accountability from those in power. A discourse based on class or social justice is just and appropriate as, instead of reinforcing statist and militarised thinking, it would explain the current crisis and future such events in egalitarian and equitable terms for example. It is time a more fair foundation is built for all kinds of catastrophes though. Language and diction will strongly influence how we prepare and cope accordingly.


[i].  Pti. “Boris Johnson Coronavirus: UK PM Boris Johnson Admitted to Intensive Care for Coronavirus Treatment: World News – Times of India.” The Times of India. Times of India, April 7, 2020. Accessed April 29, 2020. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/uk/uk-pm-boris-johnson-admitted-to-intensive-care-with-coronavirus/articleshow/75018641.cms.

[ii].  Al Jazeera. “UN Warns of New Humanitarian Crisis as COVID-19 Looms over Yemen.” News | Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera, April 28, 2020. Accessed April 29, 2020. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/04/warns-humanitarian-crisis-covid-19-looms-yemen-200428171709969.html.

[iii].  “Domestic Violence Has Increased during Coronavirus Lockdowns.” The Economist. The Economist Newspaper. Accessed April 30, 2020. https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2020/04/22/domestic-violence-has-increased-during-coronavirus-lockdowns.

[iv].  Momtaz, Rym. “Emmanuel Macron on Coronavirus: ‘We’re at War’.” POLITICO. POLITICO, March 17, 2020. Accessed April 27, 2020. https://www.politico.eu/article/emmanuel-macron-on-coronavirus-were-at-war/.

[v].  “WHO Director-General Calls on G20 to Fight, Unite, and Ignite against COVID-19.” World Health Organization. World Health Organization. Accessed April 27, 2020. https://www.who.int/news-room/detail/26-03-2020-who-s-director-general-calls-on-g20-to-fight-unite-and-ignite-against-covid-19.

[vi].  “Mahabharat Battle Won in 18 Days, Fight against Coronavirus to Take 21 Days, Says PM Modi.” Business Today, March 25, 2020. Accessed April 27, 2020. https://www.businesstoday.in/current/economy-politics/mahabharat-battle-won-18-days-fight-against-coronavirus-take-21-days-pm-modi/story/399234.html.

[vii].  Jenkins, Simon. “Why I’m Taking the Coronavirus Hype with a Pinch of Salt | Simon Jenkins.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, March 6, 2020. Accessed April 27, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/mar/06/coronavirus-hype-crisis-predictions-sars-swine-flu-panics.

[viii].  Tufekci, Zeynep. “It Wasn’t Just Trump Who Got It Wrong.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, March 24, 2020. Accessed April 27, 2020. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2020/03/what-really-doomed-americas-coronavirus-response/608596/.

[ix].  Tufekci, Zeynep. “It Wasn’t Just Trump Who Got It Wrong.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, March 24, 2020. Accessed April 27, 2020. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2020/03/what-really-doomed-americas-coronavirus-response/608596/.

[x]. Pinsker, Joe. “The People Ignoring Social Distancing.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, March 18, 2020. Accessed April 27, 2020. https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2020/03/coronavirus-social-distancing-socializing-bars-restaurants/608164/.

[xi].  Laura Donnelly; Bill Gardner; Robert Mendick; Gordon Rayner; Patrick Sawer; Tim Wallace. “UK Government’s Coronavirus Action Plan: the Key Points Explained.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, March 6, 2020. Accessed April 27, 2020. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/03/06/uk-government-coronavirus-action-plan-key-points/.

[xii].  Reuters, Source: “’Invisible Enemy’: Trump Says He Is ‘Wartime President’ in Coronavirus Battle – Video.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, March 23, 2020. Accessed April 27, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/world/video/2020/mar/23/invisible-enemy-trump-says-he-is-wartime-president-in-coronavirus-battle-video.

[xiii].  Kumar, Ravi Prakash. “Mann Ki Baat: India’s War against Coronavirus Is People-Driven, Says PM Modi.” Livemint, April 26, 2020. Accessed April 27, 2020. https://www.livemint.com/news/india/mann-ki-baat-live-pm-modi-to-address-the-nation-shortly-amid-covid-19-lockdown-11587870861358.html.

[xiv].  “To Counter Communalisation, Maharashtra Govt Releases Names of Accused in Palghar Lynching.” The Wire. Accessed April 30, 2020. https://thewire.in/government/maharashtra-palghar-lynching-accused-list.

[xv].  “Coronavirus: Emergency Powers Must Be Kept in Check.” ARTICLE 19. Accessed April 27, 2020. https://www.article19.org/resources/covid-19-emergency-powers-must-be-kept-in-check/.

[xvi].  “COVID-19: A State of Emergency Is Not an Excuse for Government Repression.” COVID-19: A state of emergency is not an excuse for government repression | Media Legal Defence Initiative, April 14, 2020. Accessed April 27, 2020. https://www.mediadefence.org/news/covid-19-state-emergency-not-excuse-government-repression.

[xvii].  Tilly, Charles. “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime (Chapter 5) – Bringing the State Back In.” Cambridge Core. Cambridge University Press. Accessed April 27, 2020. https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/bringing-the-state-back-in/war-making-and-state-making-as-organized-crime/7A7B3B6577A060D76224F54A4DD0DA4C.

[xviii].  Scholz, Barbara C., Francis Jeffry Pelletier, and Geoffrey K. Pullum. “Philosophy of Linguistics.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, January 1, 2015. Accessed April 27, 2020. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/linguistics/#Who.

[xix].  Sieff, Kevin. “Soldiers around the World Get a New Mission: Enforcing Coronavirus Lockdowns.” The Washington Post. WP Company, March 25, 2020. Accessed April 27, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/coronavirus-military-enforce-soldiers-armed-forces/2020/03/25/647cbbb6-6d53-11ea-a156-0048b62cdb51_story.html.

[xx].  Orbey, Eren, Robin Wright, and Isaac Chotiner. “Trump’s ‘Chinese Virus’ and What’s at Stake in the Coronavirus’s Name.” The New Yorker. Accessed April 27, 2020. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/whats-at-stake-in-a-viruss-name.

[xxi]. Yasir, Sameer. “India Is Scapegoating Muslims for the Spread of the Coronavirus.” Foreign Policy, April 22, 2020. Accessed April 27, 2020. https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/04/22/india-muslims-coronavirus-scapegoat-modi-hindu-nationalism/.

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