The Language of the Coronavirus: The War Metaphors
War metaphors have long been present in political rhetoric, not to discuss actual military conflicts, but actions against perceived societal problems. From Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs, to Chinese-US Trade War, we are now in the midst of War on the Coronavirus.
Why do political leaders resort to the metaphor so often? Declaration of war is a powerful rhetorical strategy for overcoming the most literal events. We all feel vulnerable in face of adversity and need metaphors that can restore our self-confidence. By enacting a war scenario, we feel as though we are assuming control over events by actively responding to them. Our actions against the coronavirus become military strategies, those terminally afflicted by the virus war casualties, and healthcare workers frontliners.
We are rationing, stockpiling, fighting the "invisible enemy" (who has an air force!), and literally mobilizing armies around the world.
As cognitive linguists have long argued, metaphor is not only a way of viewing reality, but it also justifies policy changes and political action: public health is given priority and the populace needs to make sacrifices and meet the threat in order to survive.
A number of metaphors we use are often culturally specific, but the War on the Coronavirus has become a universally shared concept. Donald Trump is referring to himself as a “wartime president" and Emmanuel Macron is declaring “war”. But it is Xi Jinping and Boris Johnson who came under scrutiny for their attempts to channel their political predecessors through their language.
China’s leader Xi Jinping declared a people’s war on COVID-19, which, the country reports, it is winning as of recently. For all the reported success in slowing the spread of the virus, China has faced much criticism over the extreme measures taken in the process. It has reportedly offered financial rewards for reporting people who had travelled from Wuhan to other parts of China and used unnecessary force.
Scholars have pointed to the links between present-day and Mao’s time when the term “people’s war” was used to refer to guerrilla warfare.
Boris Johnson is literally the man who wrote the (or rather “a”) book on Churchill, and many have commented on the fact that he has relished the opportunity to evoke his political idol’s rhetoric in the past weeks as he gets his "Churchill moment”. These excerpts from his recent public addresses suggest this to be the case:
It is going to spread further and I must level with you, I must level with the British public, many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.
This country will get through this epidemic, just as it has got through many tougher experiences before.