Ishaan Tharoor: Are we at 'war' with coronavirus?

Summary: Right now, myriad state and national governments are still in a desperate contest for medical supplies and goods as the crisis overwhelms existing health-care systems. Both experts and politicians fear that rivalries and self-interest will undermine collective action.

Ishaan Tharoor
Ishaan Tharoor photo

U.S. officials are bracing for what may be the country's deadliest week of the coronavirus pandemic. In the space of seven days, the American death toll more than doubled, surpassing 9,000, with numbers of infections still rapidly rising. As bodies pile up in New York City hospitals, the virus is now also making its mark in most of the country.

"This is going to be the hardest and saddest week of most Americans' lives, quite frankly," U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams said in an appearance on Fox News on Sunday. "This is going to be our Pearl Harbor moment, our 9/11 moment, only it's not going to be localized. It's going to be happening all over the country."

That sense of crisis was conspicuously absent in Adams' and the rest of the Trump administration's messaging just a month ago. But now President Donald Trump and his lieutenants — as well as political rivals — have embraced the narrative of a "wartime" presidency. They've hailed front-line medical workers as "warriors," cast the coronavirus as an invasive "enemy," and summoned the public and private corporations to the spirit of collective sacrifice only seen in America's darkest hours.

"The world is at war with a hidden enemy. WE WILL WIN!," the president's tweet declared on March 17.

That's for good measure. As other have noted, the pandemic's American body count is likely to eclipse the numbers of Americans who died in the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq combined.


Martial language, of course, comes easy to the world's sole superpower. But others are also expressing it. From India to China, France to Brazil, politicians plunged themselves into the battle, unveiling "war" budgets and promising a triumphant "victory" to come. In Europe, too, leaders invoked the parallel of World War II, warning their populations that their countries have not faced a greater crisis since that epochal conflict.

There's a utility in this sort of rhetoric, argue some public health experts. When faced with an imperceptible threat like a viral pandemic, political leadership has the responsibility to communicate the gravity of the situation to a public that may not otherwise sense danger. The narrative of a war, meanwhile, also helps condition society for the radical changes to daily routines mandated by public health officials. And it helps set the table for the massive political and economic restructuring governments may have to push through in the wake of the pandemic.

Still, there are many ways in which the "war" analogy falls short. "War metaphors call for mobilization, for action, for doing something," Veronika Koller, a linguist at Lancaster University in England, told the Atlantic. The current situation poses an altogether different demand — where the bulk of the world's population is being asked to simply do nothing. The specter of "war," moreover, has prompted unhelpful forms of panic, cleaning out store shelves and — in the United States — leading to a troubling rush for guns.

The idea of fighting an enemy infiltration also lends itself to bigotry against minorities and immigrants, as we've already seen during this pandemic. The grim corollary to histories of the plague are the stories of the pogroms and massacres of vulnerable communities scapegoated for spreading the outbreaks.

"This is a persistent theme throughout American history. If there is a group that is already looked at askance, the medicalization of prejudice helps to rationalize their stigmatization," said Alan Kraut, a professor of history at American University in an interview with the New Statesman. "You can always argue, 'yeah, we hate these people, but with good reason, because they brought disease to our midst.' "

And wars against tangible enemies — be they other national governments or guerrilla groups — are, in a certain sense, cleaner and easier to comprehend than the struggle against a new deadly virus.

"The problem with the word 'war' is it's too acute and makes it sound like it just kind of happened and we can fix it quickly and move on, as opposed to what happened is from systemic problems that need to be reformed so they don't happen again," Cheryl Healton, the dean of the NYU School of Global Public Health, told CNN, pointing to the failures of the U.S. response, including the country's inadequate stockpiles of vital equipment and poor coordination of its relief efforts.

Right now, myriad state and national governments are still in a desperate contest for medical supplies and goods as the crisis overwhelms existing health-care systems. Both experts and politicians fear that rivalries and self-interest will undermine collective action.


"There is a temptation to use war terms," Santiago Cabanas, Spain's ambassador in Washington, said during an online briefing with reporters last week. He pointed to the fear and uncertainty that grips the public at any time of national peril. But he added that the current crisis doesn't call for an arms race or national competition.

"We don't need weapons, we don't need bombs," he said. "We need solidarity and compassion."

And then there's the greater existential menace. There are no cease-fires with a pandemic. "I happened to find myself in a city at war, destroyed, empty streets . . . But it always felt like there was a way out," wrote Rony Brauman, former president of Doctors Without Borders, in reference to his career spent mitigating conflicts. "What is frightening today is the global dimension of the disaster: Even for someone who is used to situations of major crisis, this is an unprecedented experience."


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