COVID 19: why we need to ditch the military terms

Framing the pandemic as a war, with battles and sacrifices, sends the wrong messages

Picture: Alamy

During this lockdown period, while my family and I are following the shielding protocol, I decided to do a bit of gardening.

I went out on a recce and after assessing the situation determined that a full-scale invasion was under way; battalions of unwanted plant life had charged in, overwhelming the meagre defences, and my lawn was in full retreat. It was like Stalingrad in 1943.

Blitzing the ‘Blitz spirit’

I regrouped, established a front line, collected an arsenal of conventional and chemical weapons to attack the foreign invaders and, being a courageous hero, I declared a war on weeds.

I harnessed that Blitz spirit and counterattacked, decimating the foe and defeating the dandelions. After only a few brave casualties – my trowel got chipped on a stone – I was triumphant, like Wellington at Waterloo. Peace reigned supreme.

This is total nonsense, of course – I can’t have a war on weeds any more than I can have a war on dishes or laundry.

Yet we find ourselves using the language of warfare in so many aspects of life.

Right now, the emotive language of warfare is being laid on heavy, with politicians, commentators and advisers all describing our current situation as a war on COVID-19.

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The language of war provokes an emotional response

Former US president Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs in the 1970s, and we’ve had wars on poverty, crime, waste and inflation, among other things.

Military terms were co-opted quite purposefully in each situation, with the intention of provoking an emotional reaction.

‘We all feel heartbroken at the loss of our colleagues, but we must not accept that their deaths were necessary or inevitable – this is not a war’

We portray the thing we are against as an aggressor and categorise people as ‘with us’ or ‘against us’, making it easier to enforce change on the wider population.

We call it a ‘fight’, with individual battles and skirmishes and sacrifices to be made, and when lives are lost, we make death an honourable and heroic martyrdom.

That last sentence was difficult to write. I felt awkward writing it and you may feel uncomfortable reading it because as I type these words from the safety of isolation, my colleagues are facing serious risk. Many lives have already been lost.

We all feel heartbroken at the loss of our colleagues but we must not accept that their deaths were necessary or inevitable – this is not a war and it is not what nurses joined the profession for. We should not be expected to give our lives for our work.

Militaristic imagery increases anxiety levels

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, hospitals are being decribed as warzones, the virus as an enemy. Patient numbers become battlegrounds and nurses are front-line troops deserving medals.

Why is this imagery used? One purpose is to gain large-scale cooperation from the public, to ensure they are suitably frightened by the threat of the virus and to assure passage of a raft of legislation and policy changes as speedily as possible.

One (hopefully unintended) side effect of this use of militaristic imagery and metaphor is to raise anxiety. For the thousands of people who struggle with intrusive thoughts and health anxieties – those who experienced disabling fear even before the pandemic – this period of lockdown, social distancing, panic buying and economic uncertainty will send these thoughts into overdrive.

By using emotionally charged language, we may inadvertently be making these people’s lives worse.

There has to be an alternative way to communicate, where we use language and terminology that stresses the importance of the situation but does not create undue distress.

Using the battle narrative for illness can be demoralising

Our use of the language of war and conflict has become part of everyday parlance in healthcare. We describe nurses as being on the ‘front line’ and some still say those in our care ‘battle’ illness, despite evidence showing that this term can cause distress to patients, particularly where treatment is unsuccessful.

How helpful is it to refer to a battle or fight when we think of long-term or terminal conditions? Would we engage in armed conflict if we knew there was no prospect of victory or if it would end in stalemate whatever our input?

When long-term illnesses such as depression or schizophrenia are portrayed as battles, it implies that cure equals victory and anything else is a defeat. But the life stories of patients challenge the idea that such illnesses can be defeated, with people having to adjust their lives dramatically just to survive.

COVID-19 response calls for collaboration not confrontation

I don’t know how realistic the eradication of COVID-19 is, but it seems less likely than developing a way for people to co-exist with the virus.

We must also learn to work together as a species and society – pretty much the opposite of a war. As the German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier stated when talking about the pandemic, ‘nations do not stand against nations, soldiers not against soldiers’.

A global viral pandemic is not a war. It is dangerous, it must be taken seriously, the prospect of further loss of life is very real.

It is a public health emergency, but not a war. Maybe that doesn’t make good headlines, but it is certainly more accurate.

Ed Freshwater is a community mental health nurse and chair of the RCN mental health forum