I think its fair to say that we’re used to international and European leaders talking about a war in different contexts; the war on terror, the war on drugs and 2020 brought the war on coronavirus. Legal definitions aside, it is a war of sorts. As a dedicated word nerd, I compel someone to find a better alternative to describe the situation that we are faced with. Sure, we can throw around some synonyms such as “battle” and “fight” but ultimately, this is a war! But it’s one we can win. Together!
This isn’t a political blog post. I don’t wish to impose any politics or agenda on my readers, I’m just a word nerd and a lawyer who finds language use and the law of armed conflict and international humanitarian law simply fascinating. I think it’s important to make a clear distinction between the legal definition of war under international law and the coronavirus pandemic. This blog post isn’t about whether the use of the word “war” is right or wrong, but simply to explore how it’s used and its effects. Love it or hate it, I can understand why this word has been coined to describe the pandemic.
The idea for this blog post came to me after an interesting lesson with one of my legal English students. My student is a lawyer and a former French MP currently writing his PhD thesis, so I think it’s fair to say that he’s opinionated, something I can completely relate to. Have you ever met a lawyer who didn’t love a good argument? No, me neither. This student and I often put the world to rights and this day was no different. We analysed the language used in speeches given by British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson and the French President, Emmanuel Macron towards the beginning of the lockdown period back in 2020. Being a word nerd, peoples’ choice of words is fascinating and the talented speechwriters behind these politicians chose their words very carefully for a specific purpose. The French approach was much more direct with the repetition of nous sommes en guerre [we are at war] and referring to coronavirus as the “enemy”, whereas the typically British response was much more subtle. The war word didn’t even pass the British Prime Minister’s lips, but he certainly used a lot of other words with connotations of war; “enlist”, “fight” and “battle” to name but a few. I must admit that I preferred the less direct approach as I think the delivery conjured up a sense of duty among the British people for their own nation and the wider world. Perhaps that’s the British bias in me where we are less direct in almost everything we do. The use of language evocative of war is understandable at a time when sticking together (albeit socially distanced) and collective action is the only way to keep our fellow citizens safe.
President Macron and the British Prime Minister weren’t the only ones at war. In March, Chinese President Xi Jinping declared that China would have won the “people’s war” against the coronavirus after visiting the virus-stricken city of Wuhan. Former (so glad I can say that now) US President Donald Trump tweeted (before the ban) that “the world is at war with a hidden enemy”. Probably one of the only sincere things he’s ever said. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo also reportedly said that “ventilators are to this war what bombs were to World War II”. German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for national unity as Germany faced the greatest challenge since World War II. Now, that’s quite something to say. These sentiments were and continue to be echoed throughout Europe and the world with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres using similar language. There is certainly a common trend here.
Politicians, academics, and journalists worldwide have evoked war imagery to describe this health emergency. They’ve adopted conflict terminology suggesting a ‘war’ on the coronavirus to stress the lethal nature of this unprecedented threat. Italy was the first European country to experience a serious domestic outbreak of COVID-19 and they’ve since been referred to repeatedly as the ‘front line’ of the coronavirus pandemic. There’s another war word for you. The collective efforts of the world to combat the spread of this deadly disease are constantly portrayed in the media using war metaphors. Have you heard about the health workers who are in the trenches?
I’m not throwing the war word around lightly and I’m in no way likening months in quarantine with most of your home comforts to an armed conflict situation; that’s an entirely different horror to be faced with. And while this may not constitute an armed conflict which fulfils the legal definition of war throughout the world, I do think some parallels can be drawn to help us to understand how we can approach the fight against coronavirus. As a colleague of mine mentioned on a thought-provoking LinkedIn thread, we say that patients “fight” a disease or “win their battle with cancer” so, therefore, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that something of this scale could be referred to as a “war”. It’s fought on many fronts worldwide, it’s resulted in a devastating death toll, it’s separated loved ones, it’s interrupted life as we knew it, there are shortages and not to mention the disastrous effects on the economy. These effects aren’t dissimilar to the effects of war.
I think few people would disagree with the fact that using these metaphors also helps people understand the gravity of the pandemic; the huge amount of deaths worldwide all killed by a common ‘enemy’ is certainly very characteristic of war. Unfortunately, some people haven’t understood the gravity of the situation and have continued to put themselves and their families at risk, but if the use of the war word doesn’t spur them into action then what will? In war, I imagine that you often feel a sense of duty, whether it be to your country, your religion, your cause, your family etc. and at the moment, we need people to take this seriously. What’s more serious than war? We need people to do their duty, play their part and fight for their countries, and together we’ll recover from this.
It isn’t the first time that global pandemics or catastrophe have been described using words of war and unfortunately, I doubt it’ll be the last. However, coronavirus is no ordinary enemy and it knows no boundaries. It transcends gender, age, race etc., no one is immune; just like when you’re at war. The metaphor of war also conjures up an image of the worst atrocities possible and while the hospitals flooded with the sick and the dying is evocative of war, it doesn’t constitute war in the legal sense. However, perhaps healthcare workers and other frontline workers would disagree because in war, health care workers are protected, and they even care for the enemy. However, in this war, is PPE providing the same protection as the law does in war? Now there’s a question for you.
The power of words never ceases to amaze me. Words and war have the power to make people go into battle, to act, to make people win or lose or to stay alive. Wars are part of our shared identity and they awaken ideals of duty, personal responsibility, hope, and faith. They also inspire endurance and sacrifice. But everyone loves a winner, so stay home and stay safe.
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