What does it mean to wage a war against disease? To view public health as an operation akin to a military campaign with only three possible outcomes: victory, defeat, or stalemate? Among the many issues that the Covid-19 pandemic is forcing us to address, as individuals and societies, is our relation to pathogens. Should the coronavirus be understood as an invader that requires expulsion or as a lifeform which we must learn to accommodate? Engaging with such questions in the midst of a crisis isn’t easy. In many countries, the drive to contain the pandemic has taken on the urgency of a military campaign. Efforts to stem the spread of infection have been so thoroughly framed in military terms that entreaties to depoliticize the virus ring hollow. This viral militancy has been amplified across social media platforms that serve as sites of a new virtual geopolitics. Even if we wanted to, would it be possible to view Covid-19 nonconfrontationally? The answer to this question, I suggest, is yes. Counterintuitively, a crisis may be precisely the time to challenge war analogies and the narrow viewpoints they perpetuate.
The war rhetoric of Covid-19“Summoning the spirit of Mao Zedong’s patriotic health campaigns of the 1950s, Xi marshalled Chinese citizens to the patriotic cause.”
Martial metaphors have permeated the news since January 2020 when the coronavirus began to spread beyond China’s central Hubei Province. In February, the Chinese leadership announced a “total war” against the pathogen. As President Xi Jinping put it in a video teleconference with G20 leaders, China was mobilizing the nation in “a people’s war” against the virus. Summoning the spirit of Mao Zedong’s patriotic health campaigns of the 1950s, Xi marshalled Chinese citizens to the patriotic cause. His message was vigorously reinforced by official state media agencies. Street slogans and loudspeaker announcements, reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution, urged citizens to remain vigilant and perform their national duty in defeating the “devil” virus. The bellicose tone of this politicized health response was also strikingly similar to the fight against severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003, when then Premier Wen Jiabao launched a concerted drive to defeat the disease, following a series of initial blunders.1Robert Peckham, “Past Pandemics Exposed China’s Weaknesses, The Current One Highlights Its Strengths,” Foreign Affairs, March 27, 2020.
By March 2020, the war against Covid-19 was being taken up on other fronts. In Europe, Emmanuel Macron declared, “we are at war.” In a public television broadcast, Angela Merkel pronounced Covid-19 to be the most serious challenge facing Germany since World War II. In Britain, Queen Elizabeth evoked a wartime ethos when she addressed the nation, quoting the lyrics of the 1939 song “We’ll Meet Again” made famous by Dame Vera Lynn. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson has sought to channel the spirit of Winston Churchill, admonishing citizens to pull together for the sake of the country.
Even while downplaying the severity of the virus, US President Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and others have redirected their viral hostility toward China, referring to the novel coronavirus repeatedly as a “foreign virus,” “Chinese coronavirus,” or the “Kung flu.” By his own admission, Trump is a “wartime president.” It has been suggested (to date without evidence) that the virus was engineered as a bioweapon at the national biosafety lab in Wuhan, the city that was the epicenter of the initial outbreak. At the same time, Chinese officials have insinuated that the virus was introduced to China by the US military. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian shared articles from a conspiracy website on a tweet that alleged that US agents had “brought the epidemic to Wuhan.” And so, the warmongering has gone on, with the global media relentlessly driving the antivirus aggression.
Stretching war analogies beyond their limit
There is, of course, a long history of analogizing medicine with war, as Susan Sontag has noted.2Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors (New York: Picador, [1978 and 1989] 1990). On the global health front, the medicine-as-war (and war-as-medicine) equation has roots in colonial violence.3Robert Peckham, Epidemics in Modern Asia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 193–249. Campaigns to eliminate disease were often inseparable from coercive policies geared toward subordinating Indigenous populations: bubonic plague in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century India or sleeping sickness in colonial Africa are two examples (there are many more). World War II provided a persuasive model for mass disease eradication programs after 1945; diseases could be targeted and driven to defeat like enemy belligerents.
Reflecting on the twentieth century as the age of the atomic bomb, the cultural critic Rey Chow has described how the images of mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki encapsulate a target view of the world. The revolutionary physics that had made the nuclear bomb possible were instrumentalized for destruction. As Chow puts it, post-1945 “the world has been transformed into—is essentially conceived and grasped as—a target. To conceive of the world as a target is to conceive of it as an object to be destroyed.”4Rey Chow, The Age of the World Target: Self-Referentiality in War, Theory, and Comparative Work (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 31.
For a time, as the Cold War receded in the 1980s and early 1990s, following the market liberalization of Communist China initiated by Deng Xiaoping and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the prospect of a genuinely collaborative global health appeared within reach. A one-world approach appeared to be compatible with the espousal of a quasi-military target view predicated on identifying and eradicating disease threats. The long history of colonial violence was expediently forgotten in the name of global security. Smallpox was eradicated in 1980 and the Global Polio Eradication Initiative was launched in 1988.“To borrow cultural geographer Derek Gregory’s phrase, the struggle to contain disease had become an ‘everywhere war.’”
But HIV/AIDS and other viral diseases—the majority of them zoonotic—such as Ebola, Nipah, SARS, Avian influenza, and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (MERS), soon shattered the assumptions that underpinned conventional military interventionist approaches. Highly pathogenic viral infections arose as a result of complex ecological interactions between pathogens, animals, humans, and their environments. In the murky interstices of biological and social worlds, agency was dispersed and difficult to pinpoint. There were no clear-cut battlefronts or easily identifiable adversaries. The natural reservoirs of these viruses were obscure and often difficult to fathom. To borrow cultural geographer Derek Gregory’s phrase, the struggle to contain disease had become an “everywhere war.”5Derek Gregory, “The Everywhere War,” The Geographical Journal 177, no.3 (2011): 238–250. Briefly, another model gained traction, that of an undercover counterinsurgency operation underpinned by a logic of security, pre-emption, and surgical strike; a smart war against terror.6Robert Peckham, “Viral Chatter and the Futures of Contagion,” in Imitation, Contagion, Suggestion: On Mimesis and Society, ed. Christian Borch (New York: Routledge, 2019), 141–156.
The clunky war framework persisted in this tactical reformulation, perhaps because it had become so ingrained. Even when conventional stratagems proved ineffective, the war plan was brought out; historical blueprints of containment and attack were reactivated whenever crises occurred.
Imagining SARS-CoV-2 as an adversary reflects a similar post–World War II world-as-target perspective. The virus is reduced to an object in the crosshairs. Borders are drawn around the viral bullseye, which is designated as a terrain of exceptional risk, subjected to intense surveillance, and highlighted for obliteration. Technology has intensified this process of hot-spotting. Remote sensing, AI, robotics, and big data analytics are recruited as tools for plotting the coordinates of emerging diseases in ways that make possible ever-more precise targeted detonations (or so their purveyors claim). Although the Covid-19 pandemic has undoubtedly exposed inflated expectations around technology, and in many cases government responses have lacked coherence and coordination, a military rhetoric has nonetheless predominated. Today, a counteroffensive model of containment remains largely unchallenged.
What alternative is there to this blitzkrieg tactic in the midst of a pandemic, when life and death are at stake? The answer, I contend, is that strategic public health interventions can be compatible with more nuanced approaches that recognize and make room for complexity. At times of crisis we’re told that deep thinking will have to come later, once the immediate threat has gone. History shows us that this investment in postcrisis thinking never comes. There is no time like the present.“Targeting an external adversary and calling for national unity can be a diversionary ploy that deflects public attention away from intractable problems at home.”
The war approach serves other purposes, too. Targeting an external adversary and calling for national unity can be a diversionary ploy that deflects public attention away from intractable problems at home. Entrenched drivers of sickness—poverty, social inequality, and political corruption—are sidelined, and the exposure of health workers to the high risk of infection on the frontline is justified as sacrifice. Emergency measures implemented to combat the pandemic suspend civil rights and silence dissent; a war against disease can be a useful alibi for crackdowns on freedom, particularly when autocratic regimes are under pressure. In Hong Kong, antipandemic measures have effectively muted antigovernment protests and provided a context for the introduction of a new national security law. Conversely, in the United States and elsewhere, the pandemic has served to frame racial inequality and institutional police violence, as well as the militant responses to them.
The new online war against Covid-19
A notable aspect of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the spillover of this belligerence online. Different interest groups have pushed their agendas on social media in tandem with a ratcheting up of state surveillance and censorship in many parts of the world.7On the harnessing of social media to the cause of war, see Peter W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking, Like War: The Weaponization of Social Media (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018). Take the Twitter war that erupted in April 2020, when a Thai model’s comments on the coronavirus’s Chinese origins led to a backlash from pro-China “cyber-warriors.” This local tit-for-tat soon escalated into a mass online brawl and diplomatic incident that shifted from the virus to questions of Taiwan’s sovereignty and Hong Kong’s status as a Special Administrative Region of China.
In March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) condemned this online “infodemic” that was making containment of the virus harder. A mass of information, much of it false, was leading to a crisis of confidence. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the WHO, stressed the importance of responsible social media use. There’s a snag to this misinformation argument, which is now routinely called forth to trash opposing views. It allows little room for consideration of scientific complexity, for uncertainty about the virus (there’s still much that we do not know about SARS-Cov-2). In this respect, it promotes a mono-perspective that in the end replicates the world-as-target. This isn’t to diminish the real problems posed by misinformation or to suggest that fake news isn’t driving pernicious forms of scapegoating and online vigilantism. Undoubtedly, it is. Accusations of misinformation, however, can be used to deflect from the issue of how health, politics, and communication increasingly interact in an online ecology that influences social behavior offline. Pandemics arise when biological and social worlds collide. Proliferating megacities, industrial agriculture, intensifying transregional and global mobility—these provide a conducive environment for zoonotic viruses to cross over into human populations and to spread rapidly between communities. Understanding how different social milieus influence the emergence and spread of disease, and how responses to infection differ between societies, must be an urgent priority for the social sciences.“Targeting an external adversary and calling for national unity can be a diversionary ploy that deflects public attention away from intractable problems at home.”
The language of war is understandable during a pandemic when there’s an imperative to act swiftly to save lives, but it is not a basis for dealing long term with the intensifying challenge posed by disease emergence. Conceptualizing the management of disease as a war excludes complexity—indeed, it denies complexity and holds out the illusionary promise that every disease can be dealt with for good in the same way by a limited repertoire of interventions. Some might call this misinformation. The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed an inbuilt bias for simplification that characterizes news media and online social media interactions. A model of antiviral belligerence provides an accessible, convenient, and all-purpose frame that appeals to (and appeases) an audience that is justifiably fearful and impatient for solutions. Simplifying global challenges in this way might make short-time interventions easier to sell, but it diminishes the odds of ever tackling the multifarious biological and social drivers of pandemic disease.
Banner image: The National Guard/Flickr.