“War on COVID” is a questionable figure of speech, but it’s worth following through with it, just for the sake of mental exercise.
America loves wars on..."fill-in-the-blank". Since toppling the Axis powers, U.S. presidents have declared multiple wars on enemies other than an identifiable military force, including poverty, cancer, AIDS, drugs, and terror. We are now three months into the war on the Novel Chinese Coronavirus.
None of these are wars, strictly speaking. In a war, opposing sides engage in some sort of combat until one side surrenders, or is decimated, or an armistice is reached. War on "fill-in-the-blank" is a robust-sounding but clumsy metaphor for an effort to eradicate a menace, be it death caused by cancer cells, a specific way to fight an enemy, or consumption of illicit substances.
In the case of the Wuhan Virus, we are told, the victory will consist of either the virus going away forever, or us developing a vaccine. Until then we will have to hunker down, stay home, and wear masks when bravely venturing outside.
Both victory scenarios are unlikely because we can reasonably expect the virus, once it became a part of our ecosystem, to be here forever. Unfortunately, it appears to mutate quickly, making development of an effective vaccine unlikely. The ranks are figuring it out, and morale is low. Americans are getting outside, and some are even having fun. Such desertions among the nation-size army of stay-home-save-lives conscripts is seriously undermining the desired unity of this war effort. To whip up compliance the commissars at the New York Times even ran the front page “grim milestone” story with the names of all 100,000 of the alleged COVID19 victims. Fifteen years ago the newspaper of note used the same “grim milestone” template to undermine the Iraq War, which seems to suggests that the country’s most acclaimed journalistic writers are determined to take the war metaphor literally.
We should have never gone with that figure of speech to begin with, but no doubt it polled better than "herd immunity". Boris Johnson in the U.K. contemplated a herd immunity strategy, but quickly gave up in the ensuring media frenzy: how dare he call people a herd! Never mind that “herd immunity,” as unpleasant as it may sound, is an actual scientific term, and “war on COVID” is a hyperbolic expression dripping with faux masculinity.
The war on virus rhetoric is especially silly because by 2020 we’ve forgotten why we started using this language to begin with, which is to say we’ve forgotten how we won the Second World War.
The Origins of Our Use of the Term
In my culture, we talk of that War a lot. My mother was born during the War in the Ural Mountains where her family evacuated from Ukraine as soon as the Nazi soldiers crossed the Soviet border. My grandfather was an executive at the factory that manufactured T-34 tanks, so he had to move when the armament production was taken into the rear. Since the country was at war, and the enemy occupied its breadbasket, Soviet economic output came to a hard stop. It’s steel production, for instance, plummeted 60%. The resources to build weapons had to come from somewhere, and they came from United States under the Lend Lease program that supplied the Soviet Union with metals.
My father moved up to the Arctic Circle with his mother and older brother while his dad served as an army doctor. My father’s earliest memories were of American rations, Ivory soap, and canned food, his family was allotted so that they wouldn’t starve to death or die of diseases.
Yes, the Allied soldiers were storming the beaches of Normandy, and Soviet legends allege that brave Red Army soldiers threw themselves chest down onto Wehrmacht bayonets. Russians are still quite proud of their 25 million Great Patriotic War dead. Bravery and self-sacrifice of the Allied soldiers are to be remembered.
Yet wars are won on supply lines. The United States economy, revving up after the Great Depression, generated industrial production that allowed Allies to prevail.
When in the mid-twentieth century American politicians started declaring wars on fill-in-the-blank, they took that concept as a model. They didn’t mean an actual war effort, but mobilization of resources.
Declaring war on cancer in 1971, Richard Nixon explained: “The same kind of concentrated effort that split the atom and took man to the moon should be turned toward conquering this dread disease”. In other words, not an actual shooting war, but marshaling of resources to eradicate a menace. We can talk about how it was not a real war, which, of course, it wasn’t, but that’s besides the point. War on cancer is just a figure of speech.
Nixon signed a “bypass budget,” funneling billions of dollars into National Cancer Institute. Nothing much was required out of ordinary citizens other than to go on with their normal lives and pay taxes. Fifty years later cancer treatments have improved to the point that the disease is no longer an automatic death sentence. Some cancers are curable, and we are beginning to view even the more malign ones as chronic conditions.
But Are We Really Acting Like We are at War?
The war on COVID has been an entirely different undertaking. Much praise is being lavished on “heroic” frontline workers — medical professionals, delivery drivers, supermarket clerks, and so forth. Although the so-called “essential” workers should be commended for keeping at least some parts of our lives normal, and that initially their jobs must have seemed scary, and a few still remain dangerous, at this point we should acknowledge that most of them are cruising through the pandemic without getting sick. At the same time, very little attention is being paid to the inhuman task of staying home that is literally killing Americans by depriving their lives of meaning. Ordinary people are asked to make sacrifices that are turning out much more burdensome than they seem at the first glance, and when some break down, they are shamed for wanting normality.
Unlike a real war, and unlike our previous metaphorical mobilizations, war on COVID is somehow supposed to be won by undercutting our economic might. The United States government is sending checks to the workers to seize production, and local and state authorities are banning economic activity. Our GDP has plummeted as if large swaths of our territory is occupied by an enemy in a real war. This is how wars are lost.
An effective managing of Wuhan Virus is not going to come from shutting down the economy, and from young, healthy people who were never at any significant risk of COVID death committing suicides because they can no longer take the isolation. Most Virus deaths take place in nursing homes across the country. With that in mind, an effective management is going to come through our wealth — what’s left of it, anyways — directed towards nursing homes to improve senior care. If we are going to use the metaphor of war, let’s use it appropriately. We need resources to fight it.
Photo Credit- Forbes.com