If curbing the spread of the coronavirus is akin to being “at war,” then it is unlike any war the world has ever fought.
Still, the irregularity of this particular fight hasn’t stopped leaders from invoking wartime imagery. In China, where the outbreak was confirmed earlier this year, Xi Jinping vowed to wage a “people’s war” on the coronavirus. As the disease spread across the globe, the battle allusions followed. France’s Emmanuel Macron declared the country at war with an “invisible, elusive” enemy. Italy’s special commissioner for the coronavirus emergency said the country must equip itself for a “war economy.” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told Britons that theirs was a fight in which each and every citizen was “directly enlisted.” In the United States, Donald Trump refashioned himself as a “wartime president.”
By choosing to frame the pandemic in military terms, governments are clearly trying to communicate the gravity of this public-health crisis—one that requires the type of state intervention and personal sacrifice most nations haven’t experienced in peacetime. But drawing this imperfect parallel can have the unintended consequence of causing fear and panic too. One look at the barren supermarket shelves and the surge in U.S. firearm sales suggests that it may have already had that impact. If the aim of such imagery is to compel the public to act in the national interest, framing this crisis in war terms may achieve just the opposite. In this “war,” after all, most people aren’t being asked to mobilize; they are being asked to stay home.
The last time the world faced a pandemic of this scale, it was in the middle of an actual war. The Spanish flu appeared during the waning months of World War I, before quickly spreading around the world, infecting a third of the global population and killing tens of millions of people. Unlike with the current pandemic, invoking wartime imagery wasn’t necessary to spur action against the Spanish flu. By that point in the war, “everyone had already been making all these sacrifices,” Mark Honigsbaum, a medical historian and the author of The Pandemic Century, told me, noting that many countries were already united against a common enemy, Germany, “before this unseen enemy, the Spanish flu, came along.”
There is a long history of world leaders framing fights against disease within the context of war. From Richard Nixon’s “war on cancer” to the “Ebola wars,” politicians have invoked battle analogies to communicate the seriousness of an issue and galvanize a national response. (The same can be said for matters that have nothing to do with disease, such as Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty and the global War on Terror.)