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Did using militaristic language make the pandemic feel even worse?

Raising the spectre of ‘war’ against Covid promoted irrational panic

Image: Getty

Lockdown / A term originally referring to extreme measures taken to prevent prison inmates (and more importantly, information) from leaving or entering areas where a riot or other disturbance had occurred. During the pandemic, the term was applied to enforced stay-at-home mandates and closures of retail stores, schools, restaurants, offices, and theatres—wherever people might gather in close contact and spread the disease.

In a somewhat delayed response to an outbreak of what was then called pneumonia, on January 23, 2020, the Chinese government imposed “the Wuhan lockdown” on the city in Hubei province in which Covid was first detected. The WHO called the lockdown “unprecedented in public health history.” 

By January 24, the lockdown – and the disease – had spread to the entire province of Hubei. All public transport was halted, and no one was allowed to leave the city, although advance notice of the lockdown allowed 300,000 people to flee Wuhan before the 10am deadline. After that, only one person in each household was allowed to leave the house every two days.

The restrictions remained in place until April 8. By then, 3.9 billion people worldwide – half the population of the Earth – were living under some form of lockdown.

Even before the pandemic, the term “lockdown” had expanded beyond its militaristic context. But it was usually associated with violence and crime. For example, US airspace was placed on “lockdown” after 9/11, and the city of Boston was locked down after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. So it may be that when Covid hit, the word “lockdown” already had a negative, restrictive connotation in the public imagination, which might partly explain why there was so much resistance to it.

Susan Sontag, in Illness as Metaphor, her book about how the meaning of “cancer” has metastasized beyond the field of medicine, traces the use of military terminology to describe medical phenomena to the 1880s, a few decades after Louis Pasteur developed the germ theory of disease: a germ was an enemy that could be fought and subdued. 

The late 19th century was a particularly bellicose period in European history, and its metaphors tended to be militaristic. With the discovery of microbes, medicine became a war between diseases on one side and patients on the other. “Bacteria were said to ‘invade’ or ‘infiltrate,’ ” Sontag writes, like an invading foreign army.

In this century, applying military terminology to any sort of endeavor, strenuous or not – we’ve had the War on Poverty, the War on Drugs, the War on Terror – is common and somewhat disheartening, because none of those wars appear to be winnable. The terms persist because they give the appearance of determination and organisation: dealing with terrorism as an ongoing campaign does not require us to look into the social and political causes of terrorism, just as treating disease as an enemy does not require us to examine the social and political causes of disease.

Military or criminal terms are regularly applied to Covid-19: we have an “invasion” met with “frontline workers” who are “heroes,” and a mounting “body count.” Vaccines have been developed that “target Covid-19.”

Early in the pandemic, president Trump declared that “we want to finish this war,” adding that “this is an all-out military operation that we’ve waged.” In April 2020, US surgeon general Jerome Adams said, “This is going to be our Pearl Harbour moment, our 9/11 moment.” It might have been more accurate to say it was America’s Vietnam moment, or its Desert Storm moment: an all-out offensive against a largely unseen and poorly understood enemy that constantly eluded detection.

In The Plague, published in 1947, Albert Camus reversed the military metaphor by using a medical term to stand for a military situation. In the novel, the plague that rapidly contaminates Europe is a metaphor for the spread of Nazism. 

In a copy of the novel Camus gave to his friend Jacqueline Bernard, he wrote, “To J., survivor of the plague.” “This was a reference,” writes Bernard, “to my recent return from a German concentration camp.” Camus referred to restrictions made necessary by the disease as “a kind of imprisonment,” a sentiment readily shared by many who endured stay-at-home orders during the Covid pandemic.

When we talk about a disease as if it were a tangible enemy that can be defeated by waging war against it, we open the door to measures put in place to suspend civil liberties and human rights, and give governments extraordinary powers. As the Washington Post observed, “the spectre of ‘war’…  has prompted unhelpful forms of panic, cleaning out store shelves and — in the United States – leading to a troubling rush for guns.”

In 2020, gun shops in the US reported a 65 per cent increase in sales over 2019, and that rush to arms continued in 2021. “Sales usually spike around elections,” the New York Times noted on May 29, 2021 – which is in itself alarming – but never by so much. “Americans have been on an unusual, prolonged buying spree fueled by the coronavirus pandemic, the protests last summer, and the fears they both stoked.” 

American gun shops sold more than a million guns per week, one-fifth of them to first-time owners. As Los Angeles city councillor Marqueece Harris-Dawson told the Times, “Americans are in an arms race with themselves.” The proliferation of gun sales alone should have encouraged more people to observe the lockdowns.

In Canada, prime minister Justin Trudeau told parliament in April 2020 that the pandemic is not a war. “There is no front line marked with barbed wire, no soldiers to be destroyed across the ocean, no enemy combatants to defeat.” What we had was a medical emergency; the disease needed to be treated, the afflicted comforted. 

As the Spanish ambassador to the US, Santiago Cabanas, told the Washington Post in March 2020, “there is a temptation to use war terms. We don’t need weapons, we don’t need bombs. We need solidarity and compassion.”

Apart from places like China, Australia, and Argentina – citizens of Buenos Aires were kept in continuous lockdown for more than two hundred days – most countries imposed closures and stay-at-home measures sporadically and for short periods: two weeks here, a month there. The idea was to curtail the spread of Covid-19 until the number of new cases appeared to be lessening and then to open up businesses before the economy tanked. As a result, both a nation’s health and its economy suffered in alternating fits and starts.

In Margaret Atwood’s post-apocalyptic novel The Heart Goes Last, when the American economy collapses in “a big financial-crash business-wrecking meltdown,” Stan and Charmaine volunteer to participate in a social experiment in which they live relatively normal, productive lives in a controlled community called Consilience for one month. They are then transported into total lockdown in a prison called Positron for a month and then go back to Consilience, and so on, presumably forever. Part of the agreement is that, as in The Handmaid’s Tale, the couple can’t back out and can have no contact with the outside world.

As the novel’s title suggests, the experiment doesn’t end well. Prisoners almost always find ways to circumvent a lockdown.

An extract from Pandexicon: How the Language of the Pandemic Defined Our New Cultural Reality by Wayne Grayd, published by Greystone Books on April 27, priced £16.99

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