COVID-19, Preparedness, and the War Metaphor

Dustin Johnson | 8 April 2020

When reading about the current novel coronavirus pandemic, it is almost impossible to avoid comparing it to warfare. Various world leaders have noted that it is the most severe global crisis since WWII. Due to the crisis, President Trump has declared himself a “wartime president,” referring to the virus as if it is an opposing army with agency rather than a disease that humans spread. He should, however, be reminded that not all national leaders distinguish themselves during times of war. The US Surgeon-General has called it a Pearl Harbor and 9/11 moment. Healthcare workers in hospitals most affected by the crisis have described their experiences as being at war. Metaphors such as “front lines,” “the trenches,” “battleground,” “battle,” and the “invisible enemy” are common in stories about the crisis. Comparisons are made between the likely death toll and the number of dead from that country in previous wars. Many countries have called on their militaries to aid in the response, highlighting the widely accepted role of deploying the military during a peacetime domestic crisis.


Given the scale of the crisis, the death toll, the disruptions to peoples’ lives, and the further harms resulting from these disruptions, using war metaphors seems apt. They bring to mind struggle, sacrifice, and collective action, qualities needed in the face of such a crisis. Such metaphors are also commonly used in society: consider the war on poverty or calls for a WWII-scale mobilization to stop the climate crisis. However, we should also turn a critical eye on the use of such language and what it may enable. Crises often bring out both the best and the worst in humanity. We have seen countless examples of mutual aid, solidarity, compassion, art, and humor arise from the pandemic. At the same time, it has contributed to the erosion of democracy and the expansion of surveillance. As Yasmeen Serhan wrote last week in The Atlantic, the fear, lack of clarity, and searching for an outside enemy to target that the war metaphor evokes are damaging to the aim of controlling and ending the pandemic. Christine Schwobel-Patel writes for Aljazeera about how the war metaphor in this crisis risks reinforcing ethnonationalism and closed borders, and undermining international solidarity.


This war metaphor, combined with the scale of the pandemic, certainly gives the impression that the world is now in the midst of a global war. But, were we prepared for it? In February 2020, I attended a workshop at the University of Gothenburg on the concept of war preparation, discussing how the idea of preparing for war, either in its literal sense in the military, or more broadly or discursively in society, could be used to understand certain processes at work in the world. While our focus was on the military and preparation for armed conflict, we discussed how similar rhetoric, patterns, and logics could be seen in other areas, such as disaster preparedness. However, the pandemic shows some of the limits of how far the discourse and logic of war preparation can go for materially preparing for crises that are not armed conflicts.


Despite the prevalence of war preparation by states globally, it has become clear over the past few months that most states were unprepared for this “war.” At the beginning of the pandemic in Hubei province, systems set up in the wake of SARS for detecting new diseases ended up failing in the face of the state’s incentives to suppress news of problems at the local level. Nowhere, though, is the lack of preparedness clearer than in the United States, a state that is perennially focused on preparation for war. There have been decades of warnings, including from those within the national security apparatus, that a pandemic caused by a respiratory illness like COVID-19 was a serious threat, and months of warnings specifically about the current pandemic. Despite this, the US has turned into the pandemic’s epicenter, with devastating results in many states. Even now, the federal government still seems more interested in interfering than helping with the response to the pandemic.


In many cases, the desire to scale back government intervention and cut the budget has taken precedence over these warnings. Our national emphasis on preparation for (and waging of our current) wars has contributed to this. Whenever the demand for universal healthcare and a better social safety net is raised in the US, both systems that would allow us to handle the pandemic much better, the response is often, “but how would you pay for it?” When the defense budget is passed each year, few ask this question.


Now that we appear increasingly united in calling this pandemic a war, perhaps we will take preparing for such future crises with the seriousness in political will and funding that is granted to preparation for armed conflict. But, it is better if we can achieve that through other measures, rather than turning again to the war metaphor and the many risks it entails.

Keywords: #covid19 #coronavirus #pandemic #warprep #war

Dustin Johnson is a doctoral student in peace and development research at the University of Gothenburg’s School of Global Studies. His PhD research focuses on gender and the practice of child protection in UN peacekeeping. He is originally from Los Alamos, New Mexico. You can find him on Twitter at @WarAndCoffee. Thanks to Sanna Strand for her comments on the first draft of this blog post.

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