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Soldiering a pandemic: the threat of militarized rhetoric in addressing Covid-19

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A sewing army, making masks for America (The New York Times, 25 March)

Doctor: I am a soldier in coronavirus battle, and I am scared (CNN, 27 March)

Army prepares for battle against 'invisible enemy' as Nightingale Hospital set to open (The Independent, 1 April)

Perhaps the dominant feature of the novel coronavirus pandemic is the many uncertainties that it creates for national governments and their publics. These extend well beyond public health concerns, prompting governments to take drastic measures to save lives. Common among leaders, journalists and the general public alike has been to draw on a highly militarized – often nationalistic – rhetoric when both justifying and critiquing the pandemic situation.

If, as stated by American economist Frank H. Knight, uncertainty represents 'one of the fundamental facts of life,' how does a militarized response to uncertainty work, and why does it matter?

Militarized language evokes an us/them tension that is inherently problematic, not least when the 'them' is a virus. The zero-sum insinuations in militarized language make it difficult to generate solidarity between people living in different national settings. This predicament can have negative material impacts, e.g., in dangerous competition between and within states over what are now scarce resources (for example, medical piracy).

The use of militarized language plays a crucial part in mapping the unknown and unfamiliar onto a familiar, comprehensible thing: by portraying the coronavirus as an 'invisible enemy' that 'we' can 'combat', this uncertain threat appears to become containable, manageable, destructible even – in military and healthcare terms. While stories about 'front-line healthcare staff' and the 'deployment' of new medical equipment appeared in the media, the mayor of New York City declared 5 April 2020 – the day when hospitals there were estimated to run out of sufficient numbers of ventilators for patients with severe Covid-19 complications – 'D-Day.'

The military also have supported civilian authorities in the 'battle' against the coronavirus. Images of the US Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort docking in New York City or the opening of the National Health Service’s Nightingale emergency hospital in London, which the British Army helped construct within a matter of days, are visual testimony to this militarized response to the ongoing pandemic.

The frequent use of a militarized rhetoric in the coronavirus crisis also forms part of a personal politics of (un)certainty that plays to public emotions and is intended to send a strong message of effective political leadership to the electorate. Historical analogies to the World War II era, the last so-called 'Good War' to many, are especially characteristic of this power politics around the various unknowns of the Covid-19 pandemic. Both US President Donald Trump’s self-presentation as 'wartime president' and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s frequent invocation of the 'Blitz spirit' are attempts to secure broad public support at this time of international crisis. War rhetoric tends to normalize any drastic response leaders make and compel people to follow commands accordingly. As a result of the personal political motivations, scientific expert assessments, including the acknowledgement of existing uncertainties around the coronavirus outbreak, have played (at least initially) a less important role in official US and British government responses to the pandemic than in other states, especially Germany.

Many references to WWII assume a positive collective trans-Atlantic memory of that war, a kind of militarized nostalgia with the military as a savior and a protector. This assumption ignores so much: that other joint wars are not remembered this way, and that often there are shared experiences across battlefront borders (e.g., women’s experiences in wars and gender-based violence mean women can have a shared experience regardless of who the enemy is). Different bodies embody different roles within the overall performance of patriarchy, and militarized language obscures the ways war is experienced in practice. Whether we acknowledge them or not, these hidden aspects inform how we respond to crises, including this pandemic.

To suggest that the use of such militarized language in response to an unknown threat is new would be wrong. In the early days of the Cold War, according to Laura McEnaney, civil defence drills in the US led to a 'militarization of everyday life.' In Britain, historian David Edgerton exposed the existence of a 'warfare state', challenging popular notions about the post-war welfare state. In the 1980s, feminist scholar Carol Cohn pointed out the limitations gendered militarized language imposes on our policy imaginations. Feminist theorist Cynthia Enloe reminds us how the sentimentality we have for WWII hinders acknowledging the gendering that underlies the inequality that exacerbates the effects of the pandemic.

Militarized responses make it difficult to address the problems in the existing socio-economic political system so that we lessen the chances of facing this kind of widespread lack of preparedness in the future. Militarized rhetoric can lead to fear and then to panic and panicked responses, making a terrible situation even worse. Dialing back from militaristic rhetoric and focusing on the causes of this public health crisis make it possible to recognize and help mitigate the severe outcomes for society’s most vulnerable, not least women and people of color.

To start with, we recommend to:

  • Reimagine how we talk about the heroes. Now is the time to reimagine the system we have including who we hold up as beacons of empowerment. Reimagine who we think the real heroes are so that we recognize and incorporate their contributions. We don’t need to place our healthcare workers, supply chain managers, migrant agricultural laborers, protective gear makers, and grocery store cashiers on the 'front lines' in order to value the service they provide to keep society going even in non-pandemic times.
  • Stop talking about war casualties. To grasp the magnitude of this crisis, compare the numbers of Covid-19 dead to other pandemics/epidemics in the past. Otherwise, we risk missing the same things war statistics miss, thus limiting how we respond. Instead, we should gather real-time data and write gender into responses. The material effects are more widespread than those who die from the virus. We know, for example, that domestic violence increases in times of stress. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres offers a number of steps countries can take now.
  • Promote cross-border solidarity and (a return to) internationalism. By removing war rhetoric, we can move from heightened nationalistic hoarding to a cooperative approach of distribution. Since a pandemic does not stop at national borders, neither should our efforts to contain it and recover from it. By identifying where support is needed, we can plan better how to increase production of necessary items and shift what we have to the places that need it most. This type of approach is particularly important as we wait for what likely will be more devastating effects in the Global South, with Covid-19 and its intersection with the climate crisis. The international community cannot stand by and watch.
Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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