By Jesse McLaren
“With the patient’s body considered to be under attack (“invasion”), the only treatment is counterattack. The controlling metaphors…drawn not from economics but from the language of warfare; every physician and every attentive patient is familiar with, if perhaps inured to, this military terminology…It is invariably an encouragement to simplify what is complex and an invitation to self-righteousness, if not to fanaticism.” –Susan Sontag, Illness as metaphor
From Italy, to New York, to a nursing home in Bobcaygeon, Ontario, health providers have all used the same expression to describe the coronavirus pandemic: a war zone. This speaks to the experience of a massive health crisis that has overwhelmed existing infrastructure, leaving death and devastation in its wake. But for others, a “war on coronavirus” has become a rallying cry. Governments are playing the role of generals, like the Ontario government’s “COVID-19 Command Table.” Healthcare workers are supposed to be the shock troops, which Maclean’s Magazine called the “unsung heroes of the battle against COVID-19”. And coronavirus is personified as a foreign invader, with the French President declaring, “We are at war…The enemy is there—invisible, elusive—and it is advancing.”
Media and politicians are mobilizing military metaphors, not to empower people to confront a health crisis but to demand further sacrifice. As an article in Forbes magazine stated, “We have to treat this situation not as an emergency, but as a battle that could turn into a war. World War C. It will be costly and require extraordinary measures, even if we act quickly…It will come at a terrible cost for much of the country. But if we do it now, we can get through this crisis quickly… And as in a war, we must bear this financial and lifestyle burden together, understanding it will have consequences…That action is going to cost a great deal of people and businesses a great deal of money, time and blood.”
Like all wars, a “war on coronavirus” demands ordinary people sacrifice their health, financial security and freedoms for a supposed national interest. Like all wars, this diverts spending from health, worsens epidemics, breeds racism, and undermines democracy and civil liberties. But like all wars, there are alternatives.
War diverts resources from health
Calling for a war on a disease assumes that military preparedness is medical useful. But every dollar spent on the military is one dollar less for healthcare. Trump made this equation abundantly clear: on January 5 he bragged on Twitter that “The United States just spent Two Trillion Dollars on Military Equipment. We are the biggest and by far the BEST in the World.” This is two trillion dollars denied from universal healthcare, and denied from reducing economic inequality which is major driver of illness. As a result, the country with the biggest military also has the biggest number of coronavirus cases.
As with all wars, the bloated military budget does not benefit the rank-and-file troops: an outbreak aboard a US nuclear aircraft carrier has infected more than 150 sailors. Like the Diamond Princess cruise ship whose quarantine increased the number of infections, the aircraft carrier concentrates large number of people in close quarters. The ship’s captain wrote an open letter asking for the 4,000 sailors to be allowed to disembark. He was then fired, because Trump would rather maintain a fully staffed battleship at all times, even if it kills the troops.
Not only does war divert resources from health, but war metaphors imply that the health impact of pandemics are only the result of the microbes—irrespective of the state of healthcare prior to the pandemic, and government response during the pandemic. But as Italian scientists explained in The Lancet, “The Italian prime minister was clear in his video-message of March 5th: the emergency does not come from the lethality of the virus, but from the impossibility of the Italian healthcare system to cope with the impact of a rapid epidemic spreading of the Covid-19…No equipment had been previously stored (even masks and gloves were lacking) and no dedicated paths had been planned in case of emergency within the frame of a healthcare system that is already under-dimensioned and characterized by huge inequalities between the North and the South of the country…Italian healthcare authorities must immediately re-open the hospitals (as many as possible) that have been closed in the last decade due to a progressive cutting of the regional budget, that has left the system without reserves to be used for the present emergency and in case of future needs.”
War makes epidemics worse
Calling for a war on an infectious disease assumes that wars can reduce epidemics, despite a proven track record showing the opposite. The wilful destruction, displacement, overcrowding and malnutrition of wars are the breeding grounds for “natural disasters”—from the colonial wars and accompanying epidemics that combined to produce genocide across the Americas 500 years ago, to the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed 50 million people in the wake of World War One, to malaria that surged during World War Two. The Centres for Disease Control, the leading health authority in the US which is now focused on coronavirus, began in 1942 as the Office of Malaria Control in War Areas—out of concern that the hundreds of thousands of US troops who developed the infection would return and cause an epidemic throughout the US.
Most of the current coronavirus pandemic cannot be attributed to wars abroad, but government war measures at home have made the situation worse. As the same Italian scientists explained, “The government officially locked down residents of all the region of Milan (Lombardia) and other 11 provinces. To avoid the imprisonment, hundreds of thousands of people left those areas with any possible means in the night of March 7th, just before the law was signed by prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, thus turning his purpose of slowing down the epidemic exactly into the opposite…Just 48 hours later, the Italian government has extended these exceptional war-like measures to the entire nation.” Meanwhile the Indian government’s lockdown has sparked an epidemic of hunger, especially for the Muslim minority previously targeted by Modi.
But in some instances, coronavirus will turn from crisis into catastrophe directly because of war—from blockades to sanctions. “There’s some amount of the coronavirus that’s inevitable in Gaza, but the disaster we’re about to watch unfold is not inevitable,” explained Palestinian-Canadian physician Tarek Loubani. “The most frustrating part about the health system in Gaza is we actually know the answer, and the answer is an immediate end to the blockade.” Meanwhile, Trump is weaponizing the coronavirus in the US’s economic war against Iran. As the Iranian Canadian Congress explained, “Iran is among the hardest-hit countries by the pandemic, with over 2,300 deaths and 32,000 cases of infections from the COVID-19. It is also the only country that is dealing with this level of cases while living under severe economic sanctions…US sanctions, including banking restrictions, have severely impacted Iranians’ access to medical equipment and essential medicine.”
War breeds racism
Wars are fought between nation states on the claims that they need to defend their borders from external threats, which fans the flames of xenophobia between countries and racism within countries. This includes so-called wars for public safety that have targetted oppressed communities—from the anti-Black racism of the “war on drugs” that led to mass incarceration, to the Islamophobia of the “war on terror” that restricted civil liberties.
War metaphors applied to infectious disease is especially dangerous. Infectious diseases are by their very nature embodied in people, so launching a war on a disease means targeting those who carry the infection—and those who are accused of spreading it. There is a long history of diseases being racialized, resulting in entire communities becoming targets of repression in the name of public health, rather than addressing the racialized conditions of poverty that put them at risk. As Edward Hon-Sing Wong, co-chair of the Chinese Canadian National Council Toronto Chapter, explained, there is a “long history of framing Chinese people as inherently diseased and unhygienic. In 1890, during a cholera scare in Vancouver, the local press demanded that the government take action against Chinatown. Despite there being no accounts that cholera had arisen from the neighbourhood, city council designated Chinatown an ‘official entity’ in the medical health officer rounds and health committee reports, a designation that compels city staff to place the neighbourhood under closer scrutiny for by-law infractions. No other neighbourhood would be given such a designation or have their conditions blamed on the race of their residents. That said, living conditions were indeed poor for Chinatown residents—but more so due to a government that refused to provide sanitation services and sewers, despite countless petitions from community leaders.”
Now Trump has declared a “war against the Chinese virus”, which both reflects the economic and geopolitical rivalry between American and Chinese states, and medicalized anti-Chinese racism—neither of which do anything to contain the coronavirus. Instead, borders and bigotry create false enemies and false solutions to a global pandemic that by its very nature requires international cooperation and health for all.
War undermines democracy and civil liberties
Wars are unhealthy not only in their results—from diverting resources from health to spreading disease and racism—but also in their methods, which subordinate democracy and civil liberties to an authoritarian military command. The call for a “war on coronavirus” is accompanied by appeals for repressive measures that are supposed to offer the only way out of the crisis. Trudeau has already followed the Tories’ call to implement the Quarantine Act, which can forcibly isolate returning travelers in their homes. But this won’t affect the majority of coronavirus cases, which are now spread person-to-person within Canada rather than travel-related. So Trudeau has threatened to impose the Emergency Act.
Despite reassurances that we’re all in this together, an article in the Globe & Mail illustrated how war metaphors will demand workers sacrifice, reducing what little democracy exists in the workplace to forced labour: “this war is also being fought by people whose day jobs are unexpectedly putting them in harm’s way. This includes transit workers, flight attendants, grocery store clerks, delivery drivers, fulfillment centre employees and any number of other jobs that must be done…They can’t be forced to do these jobs, which are suddenly so essential to the fight. Or can they? As it happens, section 8(d) of the federal Emergencies Act empowers the government to direct any person or class of persons to render ‘essential services’ of a type that they are ‘competent to provide’. That is, the government can force you to do your job in an emergency…The fight against COVID-19 is a war, and every single one of us is a potential conscript. We need to adjust our thinking accordingly.”
This is not just a hypothetical situation but a response to a real question. Amazon workers have organized strikes and walkouts over lack of workplace safety related to coronavirus. As one of the organizers who was fired asked billionaire CEO Jeff Bezos, “you think you’re powerful? We’re the ones that have the power. Without us working, what are you going to do?” The answer, apparently, is corporations through their mouthpieces in the business press asking governments to impose labour conscription. Not only is forced labour unhealthy in general, but in the context of coronavirus it will be used against workers who are trying to mitigate the crisis—again showing how militarization will worsen the pandemic.
There are alternatives to war
The “war on coronavirus” metaphor is infectious, because we are facing a health crisis that threatens to kill as many people as a war, and because we need a massive societal effort to deal with it—such as the swift resource allocation and coordination that states devote to war. But we don’t need militaristic thinking to imagine a way forward.
As we learn from Italy to India, the pandemic is not an “invisible enemy” but a virus that thrives on very visible conditions—from closed hospitals to poverty. The solution is not to impose war-measures that worsen the crisis, but to expand healthcare and reduce inequality.
As we learn from the US, neither sailors, nor healthcare workers, nor warehouse workers want to be foot soldiers sacrificed in a “war on coronavirus.” The captain fired for trying to reduce coronavirus mortality on his ship explained that “We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die.” Nurses in New York City have protested for better conditions, saying, “We will not be your body bags.” The Amazon worker fired for organizing a walkout for workplace safety explained that “we don’t want to be heroes…We shouldn’t be asked to risk our lives to come into work.” If two trillion is available for warfare (or $21 billion for the Canadian military), then the same amount is available for a healthcare crisis.
As we learn from Palestine and Iran, we can also lessen the international burden of disease if we push for ending blockades and lifting sanctions. As ICC the petition calling for an end to sanctions explains, “we believe that this pandemic is a shared global threat and it could only be defeated when all countries and people come together and support one another.”
As we learn from history, medical racism makes epidemics worse. Instead of never-ending wars in the name of community safety—from war on drugs, to war on terror, to war on coronavirus—we need to challenge anti-Black racism, Islamophobia, and anti-Chinese racism, and follow the lead of impacted communities rather than police them. Rather than borders that lock people out, prisons that lock people up, and forcible quarantines that lock people in—all of which make pandemics worse—we can support migrant justice, decarceration, and civil liberties. As the Migrant Rights Network petition states, “Pandemics know no borders, neither should our solidarity.”
As we learn from around the world, workers are essential. But rather than stripping them of their basic rights and forcing them to continue working—even while sick—we need to expand workplace democracy so workers themselves can stay healthy and can keep society healthy. Amazon workers in France, Italy, Spain, and Poland have gone on strike for safer working conditions—exposing the contradictions between repressive “social distancing” on the streets and no regulation inside workplaces. As one worker explained, “I can’t walk the streets because the police will stop me if I don’t have a proper reason. Why do I have to go into the fulfilment center and work surrounded by thousands of people.” Healthcare workers in Zimbabwe and Papua New Guinea have gone on strike demanding protective equipment. In the US, bus drivers in Detroit won protective equipment for themselves and free fares for transit riders, while General Electric workers threatened with layoffs are demanding the company allow them to make ventilators instead of jet engines. “If GE trusts us to build, maintain, and test engines which go on a variety of aircraft where millions of lives are at stake, why wouldn’t they trust us to build ventilators,” asked the union president.
Across Canada, the coronavirus pandemic will disproportionately affect workers in low-wage, precarious jobs. Raising their demands, rather than curtailing their rights, is key to addressing the crisis. As the Fight for $15 and Fairness petition states, “Every hour governments in Canada delay in bringing real protections for workers, more people face the risk of contagion and financial devastation. We urgently need Health Emergency Labour Protections (H.E.L.P.): including 21 paid emergency leave days for ALL, greater access to employment insurance and an emergency fund that leaves no one behind.”
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