Coronavirus: Avoiding the Language of War

Published April 2020

As the effort to end the COVID-19 pandemic continues, it’s important that journalists do not allow political metaphors comparing this tragedy to a war to color their reporting. It serves only to further the politicization of this public health crisis and to dampen criticism to ineffective government response.

Essential Workers and First Responders vs. “Heroes on the front lines”

“I don’t want to be called a hero, but I also don’t want to let people die. Calling me a hero empowers you to tell me that’s enough because that’s the highest compliment that you can give me. I don’t need a compliment; I need safe staffing. I need to have a number of patients that I can manage and keep well. I need the right equipment that works.” — New York E.R. nurse Jillian Primiano1

“Cashiers and shelf-stockers and delivery-truck drivers aren’t heroes. They’re victims. To call them heroes is to justify their exploitation. By praising the blue-collar worker’s public service, the progressive consumer is assuaged of her cognitive dissonance.” — Grocery store worker Karleigh Frisbie Brogan2

“Yes, they are all heroes, but they are also stuck, and if calling them “angels” deflects from how broken their compensation and job protection arrangement really is, then we need to find a new way to talk about it. Heroism is associated with unnatural martyrdom, willing sacrifice, and, above all, choice.” — Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick3

It is appropriate to be reverential to those putting their lives at risk to save others and keep our society running at this terrible moment. They are certainly performing incredible acts of sacrifice.

But labeling essential workers “heroes” allows us to explain away the often unsafe conditions many are being forced to work under and softens our reactions to their deaths by implying they’ve volunteered to be put in harm’s way and that it comes with the territory, so to speak. It glosses over the fact that these deaths are preventable and that people are being irrevocably harmed by countries that failed to prepare themselves adequately for, and have fallen short in their response to, this tragedy.

Similarly, calling essential workers “frontline” workers compares them to soldiers or members of the military, implying they signed up for sacrificing themselves for their country. Many are facing impossible decisions between whether to continue working and put their lives and those of their families at risk or lose their jobs and thus their ability to eat or find shelter. Equating them with soldiers once again softens our reaction to their preventable deaths.

Journalists should also be careful to avoid “inspiration porn” stories that glorify their sacrifice without calling into question the systems and conditions that made their sacrifice necessary.4

Try this instead

Use “essential workers” and “first responders.”

Skip the war analogies.

Politicians and public officials have frequently referred to the COVID-19 pandemic as a “war” on the virus.5 This makes sense inasmuch as it conveys urgency and the need to cooperate at scale.

But wartime analogies stoke fear, and flatten humans into heroes and enemies. Typically during wartime our enemy is a group of people, and thus the use of that metaphor encourages us to seek a more concrete or human enemy beyond the invisible coronavirus. In a time of widespread anxiety, anger and hate has already been misdirected towards Asian Americans6 and government officials executing science-based advice for disease prevention.7

And, as mentioned above, calling first responders and essential workers (many who did not expect or elect to become martyrs for their country) “heroes” allows others to feel as though they’ve provided support or activism when they’ve provided only compliments.2

The wartime analogy also inherently emphasizes the voices of those who typically influence the war response — political figures — instead of those who should influence response to a public health emergency — public health experts and scientists.8

As one neurology resident puts it, “To adopt a wartime mentality is fundamentally to allow for an all-bets-are-off, anything-goes approach to emerging victorious. And while there may very well be a time for slapdash tactics in the course of weaponized encounters on the physical battlefield, this is never how one should endeavor to practice medicine.”9

Finally, the wartime analogy allows political figures to launder their reputations as their responses to the crisis are criticized, framing themselves as heroes in the midst of battle and calling to mind leaders of the past who have led their country through tough times. Thus, journalists should be especially selective in repeating the wartime analogy in quotes by public figures, as this helps to perpetuate this irresponsible framing without providing much news value.

Try this instead:

Use “global public health emergency” or “global public health crisis.”