The Language We Use

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“We are at war. Certainly in a healthcare war. We are not fighting an army, nor are we fighting another nation. But the enemy is here – invisible, elusive, it progresses. It thus requires a call to arms.”

President Emmanuel Macron delivered those words to the French people in March of 2020, when the novel coronavirus was beginning its exponential spread in Europe and North America. Macron’s use of military memes to characterize COVID-19 has become standard for politicians and public health officials the world over, to the point that it is hard to think of the COVID-19 pandemic as anything other than a battle. Less than a year after Mr. Macron issued his warrior cry, the ruling party in India trumpeted that it had, “defeated Covid under the able, sensible, committed and visionary leadership of Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi.” Not to be outdone, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo proclaimed in a May public address about his state’s loosening of virus restrictions that “New York is coming back, and it’s a testament to the strength and grit of New Yorkers who banded together, stayed tough, and fought as one to defeat this COVID beast.”

As a global society, we are only just past the nadir of the 10,000 year-long Age of Separation, so this bellicosity isn’t surprising. We are conditioned by the foundational myths of our culture to relate to the other-than-human world around us by identifying an exterior enemy and declaring all-out war on our target. Usually, this initial antagonism begets more violence. Think for example of how fungicides, herbicides, and insecticides are sprayed on industrial crop fields. Inevitably, the crops evolve new defenses against the onslaught, and like the Red Queen, growers in turn must develop still deadlier pesticides to keep up. In the United States at least, all one must do is examine the abysmal failures of the “War on Drugs,” the “War on Poverty,” and the “War on Terror” to find further evidence of our war mentality’s shortcomings.

It just so happens that a linguistic shift away from antagonism over the past 4 years has been vital to my own healing process. As with cancer, many neurofibromatosis patients refer to their medical predicament as a fight and their diagnosis as the enemy. By the time I turned 22, however, I was tired of combat and ready for a different approach. So I began entertaining the concept that my diagnosis wasn’t something to be fought at all but perhaps contained wisdom that needed to be integrated. I would find out that such a belief is foundational in many indigenous ontologies. These marginalized worldviews reason that illnesses are the result of an imbalance in the wider collective—be it a family, a town, a nation, or the global whole—and thus have their own spirits. This deeper, more considered approach to illness has opened new potential storylines as I try to disentangle myself from the labyrinth of illness. One such storyline is that my higher self chose to be born with a chronic medical condition in order to understand wetiko—the mind virus of separation—and to assimilate the karma of my predecessors (at least one of my ancestors, for example, was directly involved in the early genocide of American Indians). However such an explanation might sound to you, the idea that there’s intentionality wrapped up in my medical condition gives me agency and a path forward. One step I can take now towards healing is to break the intergenerational cycle of violence by repudiating the language of violence.

So, what of COVID-19’s spirit? If COVID-19 is the product of an imbalance, then anthropogenic global warming and the constellation of related crises is the pandemic’s likeliest root cause. The respiratory failure and fever associated with COVID-19 do bear a sinister correspondence to the pollution and ever-more-intense wildfires and heatwaves being inflicted on the world. It then follows that humanity’s response to COVID-19 could determine our response to the systemic ecological crises that threaten to erase all our achievements. 

A friend of mine told me last summer that she had a dream in which COVID-19 appeared to her first as an enraged feral cat, then as a reptilian monster, and finally as an impoverished peasant woman. The peasant woman my friend described reminds me of the archetype of the crone, who often appears in mythic stories as a teacher come to correct her wayward children’s ways. Now that COVID-19 is endemic, we as a global society can at least accept (rather than fight) the unavoidable challenges of a pandemic and commit ourselves to learn whatever lessons COVID-19 might teach. Ultimately, though, my friend’s dream gets to the core of the perceived world’s elasticity. Since collective storytelling determines the behavior of the subatomic particles that comprise our reality, a collective COVID-19 story framed around warfare means we may have to contend with an enraged animal or a Godzilla figure instead of a well-meaning teacher. Furthermore, COVID-19 could mirror back our bellicose language by behaving like a true wartime enemy. It could “gather intel” to outwit all our defenses then ambush us again and again. Currently, the Delta variant is sustaining COVID-19’s destructive path, and health officials are issuing warnings about the spread of the Lambda variant as well. Eighteen months since COVID-19 entered the collective consciousness and world leaders began declaring war, it’s worth wondering whether we’ve defeated anything. As I wrote earlier, war begets more war.

COVID-19 has officially killed a little over 4 million people, but the real toll is likely much higher. By all accounts, emergency rooms in regions hit hard by the pandemic have at various points resembled war zones, and medical workers there have been forced to make decisions that were once relegated to battlefields. In the face of such devastation, it can be tempting to reason that it is irresponsible to regard COVID-19 as anything less than an enemy that must be exterminated. But COVID-19’s wide reach is a direct result of governmental ineptitude plus an institutional unwillingness to put a brake on economic growth (there was hardly a murmur of calling off Milan Fashion Week 2020 in total, even when it was known that the virus was spreading in northern Italy). If you are unconvinced by my spiritual appeals, there are more prosaic reasons why the language of war should be avoided when referring to COVID-19. A letter to the editor from a doctor published in the New York Times in March of last year has this to say:

“Military rhetoric in this and other articles is clouding the public’s understanding of what it is like to work in a hospital right now. Medical staff are not soldiers ‘fighting a war,’ and we are not ‘in the trenches’ or ‘on the front lines.’ We did not sign up for this; unlike the military, medicine is not a career for which we ever expected to die.

“Medical staff are being forced to work in extremely unsafe conditions. Furthermore, the burden of care often falls on the lowest-ranked workers. Resident physicians, for example, work 80 hours a week with one day off. Opportunities for residents are scarce outside of hospitals, so we cling to our jobs to avoid ruin.

“Medical workers have already died in the United States, and more deaths are coming. We will be called ‘heroes’ to hide the truth: We were killed on dangerous job sites.”

We determine the shape of the stories we want to tell. Photo courtesy of Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash