Coronavirus: A pandemic is not a war – but it can save us from waging one

A period devoid of human contact could teach people to value life irrespective of differences

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War and the virus

War metaphors are everywhere you look in the age of coronavirus. It is a war against a hidden enemy, US President Donald Trump declares. Doctors, nurses and hospital staff are frontline workers, our first line of defence. China designated healthcare workers who died fighting the pandemic as martyrs.

I do not know where the desire to declare war on every challenge facing our societies comes from, but it does make some sense. Wartime rhetoric can make it easier to accept the radical measures needed to “flatten the curve” and control the pandemic. It elicits confidence in public institutions at a time when deep uncertainty reigns, with the knowledge that the government will spare no effort or expense to protect citizens.

With a U.S. flag as a backdrop, U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks on supporting the passage of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada (USMCA) trade deal during a visit to Derco Aerospace Inc., a Lockheed Martin subsidiary, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S., July 12, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
Donald Trump has used war metaphors to describe the effort to contain the coronavirus pandemic. Reuters

This "rallying around the flag" effect, the greater propensity for sacrifice, the sense of solidarity that comes from knowing we are all in it together, can be enhanced by the war metaphors. The sweeping and extraordinary restrictions on movement in place require compliance, and that can only be achieved through serious reckoning with the crisis at hand.

And with that reckoning, the belief that the war can be won.

And yet, the dangers and limitations of wartime comparisons are also readily apparent. They inspire the sort of hoarding and run on essential goods over irrational fear of rationing that in the West has led to toilet paper shortages. It is still hard in some places to find diapers, baby wipes and infant formula.

An Iraqi Civil Defence teams disinfects the streets of Sadr City in Baghdad on March 24, 2020 as a precaution against the coronavirus COVID-19 during the imposition of a curfew in Iraq. / AFP / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE
A member of the Iraqi Civil Defence Corps disinfects the streets of Sadr City in Baghdad during the imposition of a curfew. AFP

The rhetoric of war can also lead to the demonisation of minorities. Mr Trump has frequently described coronavirus as the “Chinese virus”, an epithet that is particularly concerning amid rising reports of attacks against Asian immigrants in the US that are purportedly prompted by the pandemic. There are historical parallels to this scapegoating of minorities, such as the pogroms of Jews in Europe during the Black Death.

We are also particularly attuned in the Middle East to the limitations of this rhetoric. The so-called war on terror sparked limitless misery and instability throughout the region because of the failure to imagine solutions to religious extremism that go beyond dropping bombs on faraway countries. When war is the norm, every problem then looks like it can be solved with drone strikes.

The rhetoric also risks creating the conditions for authoritarian, abusive governments to cement their power, and for the erosion of civil liberties and privacy rights. The “rally around the flag” effect of national crises and traumas can make it easier for some governments to concentrate power under the guise of fighting the pandemic.

Things rarely go back to the way they were once a national crisis is over, either. Just look at the US and the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

And it does not really feel like a war for most of us, does it? We are not being drafted into the military, or forced to work extra hours in artillery factories, or having to ration food and tea. This war is being fought by the few on behalf of the many, but the job of the many is to sit at home and forego the evolutionary imperative of human contact, of embracing loved ones, of mingling with strangers. The great sacrifice is one of enduring absence and loss, not action and martyrdom in defence of land and country.

Are we at war, then? It is hard to pinpoint an answer given how unprecedented this all is. But I will venture that perhaps the wartime metaphors miss the point. Because I do not know about you, but I feel like right now I need a dose of the human touch. To hug a friend I ran into at the corner store, to be drowned out by the noise in a crowded restaurant, to people-watch at the park. To step outside without being afraid.

Is that not what war inspires in most of us? Fear, panic, great acts of cruelty and inhumanity. I do not want to be afraid for too much longer every time I walk out the door to buy milk and bread. It helps, though, when I step onto the footpath and I see, through the windows of the houses nearby, the drawings of the children. They say, “everything will be alright” and "ca va bien aller".

This March 2020 photo provided by Graciela Tiscareño-Sato of Castro Valley, Calif., shows her with her husband and children, foreground, singing to her mother-in-law for her 79th birthday at a safe distance due to the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak. "Imagine now trying to explain to your child why she can't hug her grandmother," she says. "You're very much missing the human contact when you're standing 30 feet away." (Courtesy Graciela Tiscareño-Sato via AP)
There was hope that we might emerge out of the pandemic with a renewed sense of social cohesion, greater empathy towards the most vulnerable, a stronger understanding of the value of family ties and friendship, deeper solidarity in the face of existential crises such as climate change, and a feeling that we are in it together, that the polarisation that characterises politics and social media will retreat AP Photo

Perhaps we will come out of this more tender, more kind to our neighbours and tolerant of difference because we crave human contact, any human contact. Perhaps our dealings with them will be redolent of greater tolerance and understanding. We will realise that it does not matter if our neighbour is liberal or conservative, Muslim or Hindu, Sunni or Shia, black or white, we will still need their help if the going gets tough. We are all in it together. I am reminded of that reality with the multitudes of stories of generosity in this pandemic.

Perhaps this war will be won if we emerge from it truly healed, as avatars of the better angels of our nature. Perhaps human life will be more valuable, and we will start trying to save it instead of going to war.

Kareem Shaheen is a former Middle East correspondent based in Canada

War and the virus