Choosing Our Words With Care


Work from Andy Goldsworthy that, for the author, represents reframing and the idea of ‘wintering out’​ this crisis.


We are not at war!

This is a public health emergency. Let’s call it by its name!

Faced with the CODID-19 pandemic, the war metaphor is tempting and has been widely used by politicians and journalists to convey a sense of emergency and mobilise the whole society. A virus is quite an abstract threat and a metaphor is useful to make the danger more real and ensure collective action. The military framing of the pandemic also justifies the use of measures like states of emergency that are rarely used in democracies during peace times.

Even though the war metaphor helps to convey the gravity of the situation, it has dangerous flaws, as many commentators have explained in the past weeks:

  • A pandemic is a global issue, which requires a global response. Even if countries have to take urgent domestic measures, they will soon need to collaborate to ensure all countries are supported to deal with the pandemic. A global health strategy is needed to support to countries with more fragile health systems.
  • A pandemic response should be designed on values of solidarity, human dignity and human rights. The war metaphor reinforces nationalism by breeding fear and might give the impression that countries need to ‘fight’ other countries to ‘win’ this war. Cynthia Eloe rightly notes: “We have learned – feminist investigators have taught us repeatedly – that in myriad countries and across generations, war waging has fuelled sexism, racism, homophobia, autocracy, secrecy and xenophobia.”
  • Preventive measures, long-term public health strategies and investment in public health can prevent us from being in such a catastrophic situation. This pandemic is not a surprise; many epidemiologists had warned about it coming and we were still not prepared. Cheryl Healton, the dean of the NYU School of Global Public Health explains how in the context of Coronavirus, the war metaphor “makes it seem like it was something you couldn’t control. War is like a last resort. There were many other alternatives to this.”  
  • The war metaphor focuses our attention on short-term solutions that ignore the underlying public health and social issues that deepen the pandemic.
  • The current pandemic is made worse by failures in the system. The war metaphor also gives us the impression that there will be winners and losers; and that the stronger survive. People die of COVID-19; they do not lose! Our focus needs to be on the failures of the systems that permitted the pandemic to take such a dramatic turn.
  • Finally, a public health emergency is our opportunity to re-build a society based on values and the possibility for everyone to live with dignity. The war metaphor creates instead a political opportunity for authoritarians to seize more power.

Some leaders have reframed the pandemic in other ways. In Denmark, Queen Margrethe II likened the virus to a “dangerous guest,” and urged Danes to “show our togetherness by keeping apart.” Charles Eisenstein uses this powerful metaphor, which shows the possibilities of change that this pandemic opens to us: “COVID-19 is like a rehab intervention that breaks the addictive hold of normality.”

The COVID-19 pandemic is a public health emergency that is getting worse because of underlying social problems and the lack of investment in public health. We therefore need to call it like as it is in order to make sure that we are taking about policies with long-term effects, and not focus only on quick fixes. Words matter and influence political choices, public policies and investments. A movement started on twitter with the hashtag #ReframeCovid to collect ideas on how to reframe the debate on the responses given to this pandemic. Let’s be more deliberate with our choice of words.

“If we winter this one out, we can summer anywhere.”

Seamus Heaney

Véronique Lerch is an international Human Rights consultant, specialised in child rights, policy development, child and youth participation, advocacy and communication for change. She is the current President of the EMAlumni Association and a board member of Global Campus Alumni. Véronique gives advanced training seminars on human rights, children’s rights and advocacy at the Centro de Estudos Sociais from the University of Coimbra. This article was originally published on the author’s platform, Follow her on twitter @LerchVeronique 

More reading on this issue:

Metaphors in the time of coronavirus

Beyond War Talk: Laying Bare the Structural Violence of the Pandemic


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