We need to see ourselves as responsible citizens that are part of a connected and interdependent global effort.
How we use metaphors can either help or hinder when we communicate about the pandemic and try to build the case for a responsible, caring and proportional response.
Metaphors are important because they offer us a structure for how to think. They point us towards what the problem is, and therefore what the solution should be. Often they slip in unseen. We can use them, repeat them and extend them without even realising it.
At the Public Interest Research Centre, we analysed a sample of the most read articles in the most read online news media outlets — the BBC, Sky News, The Guardian and The Daily Mail — to understand the range and frequency of metaphors being used about coronavirus. We saw apocalypse, tsunamis, acceleration, bottlenecks, burdens, trains, hurdles, invasion and sombreros. But mostly we saw war and crime.
War is the go-to metaphor in a crisis, as Brigitte Nerlich has pointed out. We’re hearing it used to talk about the virus itself— “As coronavirus has invaded the world and is threatening humanity…”— but mostly we are hearing it used to talk about the needed government response. And that response is: combating the threat; defending the city; enlisting an army of volunteers; a task force; shielding people; blockading regions.
In a time of crisis, the parallel with wartime can be reassuring. It might feel appropriate to the gravity of the situation. It can evoke a sense that we’re all in this together.
But there are several reasons we should avoid using the war metaphor.
First off, it justifies fighting the enemy at all other costs. It implies extreme violence and serious trade-offs. In a war, people and resources are all subsumed into the war effort. Normal priorities and concerns are swept aside, and the government (and military) assume more top down control.
Of course, some of this is a literal description of what is happening now (and, arguably, needed to some extent). But we are not at war. This metaphor encourages us to accept sweeping and possibly authoritarian powers without them necessarily being appropriate to the situation. It makes it easier to frame the democratic process and even basic human rights as an obstacle.
In a war, the moral appeal becomes about ‘obeying orders’ and ‘doing your duty’. This frames people, including healthcare workers, as soldiers. But we are not soldiers, and we are not defending our nation. We need to see ourselves as responsible citizens that are part of a connected and interdependent global effort.
The media have also been very quick to frame the general public as petty criminals. Suddenly people are dodging the lockdown, violating the curfew, flouting warnings - and there is a need for stricter, tougher measures.
Strict is for naughty children. Tough measures are for criminals.
Again, there is to some extent a literal nature to this, because there are new rules, and some people are breaking them. But in a climate of confusion, where government advice is not always clear, or changing rapidly, most people are not deviously plotting how to break the law and get away with it.
We are not a nation of criminals or soldiers.
Both war and crime metaphors are unhelpful because of what they imply about the type of leadership we need. The government’s main role in this situation is not to fight a war, or to manage criminal activity. Its role is to foster trust and community, and manage services and support systems responsibly.
It is potentially helpful at the moment to instead draw on metaphors that situate us in a journey with a certain arc - an arc that is ultimately hopeful but going to be difficult and painful along the way.
We’re hearing this implied in sentiments like ‘it’ll get worse before it gets better’, ‘there is light at the end of the tunnel’. These metaphors can be useful for preparing us for what is ahead, and giving us some perspective. They can also focus minds on where we want to go, prompting the question: What is the world we want to come out of this into?
Another way of thinking about Covid-19 is as an education. The pandemic is a teacher with important lessons for us about the body and immunity, public health and social infrastructure, the economy and global society. It tutors us in the conditions a virus needs to spread. It demands us to ask what we value as a society. It poses challenging questions about the world we want to live in and how we will bring it about.
Eula Biss argues that this metaphor is the most productive way of talking about a virus, at both a bodily and societal level. “If you think of yourself as being at war you feel embattled. But if you think of yourself as being in education you feel like making progress, you are getting somewhere.”
If we think about being schooled by Covid-19, rather than being at war with it, eradicating the virus is no longer the only goal.
An education metaphor provides us with a wider lens. To extend the metaphor, it might prompt us to think, what lessons can we learn for how we want to live?
The power of metaphor lies in its ability to structure our thinking: to understand Covid-19 in the right or wrong way; to believe, or not, in the solutions; to feel hopeful or fatalistic about the future.
At a time of tragedy, when the course of action is still being set, it is one of the tools we must draw on with care.
Bec Sanderson is research lead at the Public Interest Research Centre, focusing on audience research, media analysis and frame testing. @pircuk. Dora Meade is network lead at the Public Interest Research Centre. @dorameade @pircuk. A longer version of this article is available via the Public Interest Research Centre.
Image: Hospital CLÍNIC