Why Is the Pandemic Likened to a 'War'?

The term ‘war’ invokes nationalistic solidarity amongst citizens. It is not surprising then that most leaders using this analogy are self-proclaimed nationalists.

One after another, leaders across the world are drawing parallels between war and the coronavirus pandemic. Health workers are being compared to the armies during the Second World War on different social media platforms.

These comparisons reflect the highly militarised world system we are currently living in. This is not happening for the first time either. Between the two world wars, the Spanish influenza in 1918-19 threw the world into disarray and was treated as yet another war front which was killing mostly troops. The death toll due to the Spanish Influenza in 1918 was comparatively higher amongst troops.

The first three decades of twentieth-century are believed to be one of the most highly militarised periods in human history when despotic rulers like Hitler and Mussolini were in power. It was a period of aggression, exclusion and ultra-nationalism. Even democratic systems resorted to aggressive and authoritarianism reforms, curtailing the rights of citizens.

There has been a recent spurt in the study of the influenza epidemic of 1918 in the last twenty years. The curtailment of citizen’s rights in the name of fighting the coronavirus as a ‘war on people’ has already begun. Hungary and France are burning examples.

A young boy who emerged as a symbol of democracy in Hungary, during the 1990s, Viktor Orban recently became the dictator of the country under the guise of fighting the coronavirus pandemic. The Hungarian parliament recently granted sweeping powers to Orban to rule by decree indefinitely.

French President Emmanuel Macron declared that France was ‘at war’ on March 17. He suspended municipal elections and warned against any infractions. Governments of several countries have declared a complete lockdown, limiting the citizens’ right of physical movement on the streets.

In India, voices are being raised to amend the colonial Epidemic Diseases Act 1897 to equip the state to deal with this medical crisis and give more power to the Union government. The colonial Act gave extra powers to local authorities to deal with the epidemic. US President Donald Trump has declared himself to be a ‘wartime president against Chinese virus’. Furthermore, he is being compared to Churchill as a hero of ‘war’.

Also read: What Epidemics from the Colonial Era Can Teach Us About Society’s Response

Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, on the other hand, used an analogy from Mahabharata (The Great War) to address the fight against COVID-19. Mahabharata also symbolises a war against one’s own family members. In contemporary India, this might be against Muslims. What we need to fight against such a pandemic is not just inclusive nationalism but more importantly global nationalism which needs coexistence and transcends national boundaries.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, on the other hand, declared that the fight against the coronavirus was a People’s War. Unlike the US, China could hardly compare the fight against the coronavirus with the world wars. The Chinese authorities have put a great deal of effort into galvanising collective responsibility in this crisis. This claims to qualify as constructive nationalism from within. However, at the same time, this also curtails the rights of its own citizens.

The use of military terminology to describe different aspects of the pandemic and justify the need for a strong state, leader, centralised decision-making system and sacrifices from its citizens is required during any war. These sacrifices include rights related to citizenship, financial and labour support etc. It is believed that invoking warlike sacrifice heightens the need for governments to balance rewards across boundaries of class, race, region, and age. But history depicts something else. The businessmen who made massive profits during the two World Wars across countries received special hatred while those who risked their lives and labour emerged as heroes of the time.

Are Indian leaders using the analogy of a ‘war’ for this pandemic (COVID-19) ready to tax their business classes? At least the decision of the Indian government to create the PM CARES Fund does not reflect the above. The PM CARES Fund gives an easy escape to the Indian business class to run away from their social responsibilities during this crisis. In the name of donations, what they are actually contributing is their Corporate Social Responsibility, to which they are bound by law.

The pharmaceutical corporations all over the world, including those in India, are bound to make excess profits during the current crisis. Are we ready to revive the spirit of the time during the two world wars to tax the profit-making corporations disproportionately? During this global crisis, there are seamless attempts to promote the bid to buy the upcoming vaccines for COVID-19.

Also read: The Post-COVID World: Dragging the State Back Into Public Services

The usage of the term ‘war’ for this pandemic also asks for solidarity among its citizens as nationalism suggests. It is not surprising that most of the leaders who are using the analogy of a ‘war’ for this crisis are self-proclaimed nationalists and known for their right-wing politics. But we have to ensure that this solidarity/nationalism is not exclusionary. This is not a national crisis. It’s a global crisis! It is a crisis for humanity. Nationalism often looks for an enemy on a warfront with a geographical boundary. This was perhaps the case when people and countries began to accuse China, Chinese cuisine and Chinese culture and Islamic communities for the outbreak and spread of COVID-19.

Experts have also speculated that using terms like ‘war’ creates a sense of panic amongst people leads to several things including the hoarding of necessary goods. According to Veronika Koller, a linguist at Lancaster University, “war metaphors call for mobilisation, for action, for doing something,” while here in case of the COVID-19 crisis, what is needed is ‘no-movement’, and ‘self-isolation’, and ‘social-distancing.’

The fight against coronavirus cannot entail the defeat of the virus or its elimination. It is perhaps going to live with us for forever. What we need to learn is how to live with it. We need to develop the strongest possible immunity against it. This is perhaps why the coronavirus should be understood as an endemic disease in line with chickenpox, or influenza. Before the novel coronavirus, two more variants of the coronavirus – SARS and MERS – had already killed many across the world in the last two decades.

The influenza virus, which broke out in 1918 throughout the world continues to take lives even today. Last year, the influenza infected 35.5 million people, of which 16.5 million people visited health centres, 490,600 were hospitalised and 34,200 died. With changes in the environment, genetic mutation will be triggered, which can alter the virus’s strategy as well and thus human civilisation will also have to keep evolving its strategy against these viruses. We need consistent research in this field penetrating across the line of disciplines.

’War’ may not necessarily be the most appropriate analogy to describe either the influenza pandemic of 1918-20 or the conditions created by the current outbreak.

In Denmark, Queen Margrethe II used the term “dangerous guest” to denote coronavirus. The director-general of the WHO used the analogy of a football game to describe the fight against the coronavirus. He outlined the importance of defensive measures in dealing with the current pandemic as, in a game of football, defence is as important as attacking is.

Also read: How to Dissent During a Pandemic: Reflections From Sri Lanka

In the mid-twentieth century, analogies of “fire, flood and red fever” were used to denote the Cold War. Apprehension about using militarised terms such as ‘war’, ‘battlefront’, etc. to denote a war-like situation such as the cold war, reflects the time immediately after the second world war. By the time World War II ended, ‘war’ had acquired a rather sore connotation. The Mid-twentieth century was also an era of global acceptance for demilitarisation. The Non-Alignment Movement under the leadership of India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru was one of the several initiatives aimed at promoting demilitarisation across the world.

The frequent use of the term ‘war’ for the Spanish influenza in literature produced during the two World Wars reflects the highly militarised world system of the time. In fact, the movement of armies played a key role in spreading the influenza across the world during the 1920s

What does the use of the analogy of ‘war’ for the coronavirus crisis reflect about our current world system? Are we living in a highly militarised world system with hypernationalism and racism in action? The recent spurt in research on the issue of Spanish influenza, its relation with the war and security of state perhaps reflect the highly militarised world system we are living in.

Sanjeev Kumar is Senior Researcher at Tata Institute of Social Science, Mumbai. He can be reached at [email protected]