From my wonderful Marquette colleague, professor in social and cultural sciences, Alexandra Crampton, who argues that the very metaphors we use make us less likely to succeed in staying healthy:
As the Covid-19 virus circulates, so have war metaphors. UN and national leaders are using a familiar rallying cry to justify their moral authority, calls for infusions of cash, and warnings of dire consequences if demands are not met.
However, to declare war on a microbe is to miss the larger message that this lethal carrier brings; we have not been getting along well within the natural world, and we are now drawn by necessity to better imagine global citizenship. Meanwhile, this pandemic also reminds us of how technologies have enabled our big blue planet to become more of a shallow pond. Drawing from anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, the challenge is even bigger than global citizenship; it is one of true kinship with everyone – and everything— within this shallow pond.
Calls to war work better in competition over larger space and for time-limited causes. They may enable short run sacrifice that turn to exhaustion in the face of systemic challenges. When the initial call becomes a chronic sacrifice, burnout and cynicism soon follow, especially when the war call contains promises of total victory by “us” against “them.” Unfortunately, viruses and microbes we will always have with us, as they quickly adapt to our interventions. We know this through unintended consequences of anti-biotics and anti-malarial drugs.
As an academic who studies modern social interventions to “do good,” I am alarmed by the ways that war language can mislead and harm when applied to social problems. The war against cancer encouraged development of highly toxic interventions and narrowed focus to finding “magic bullet” cures that proved elusive. Meanwhile, oncologists are not focused on foreign invaders because most cancers develop within individual and social bodies through a complex interplay of genetics and epigenetics. In consideration of another declared war, Steve Gillon describes how the U.S. war on poverty led to infusions of cash without sufficient time for collaboration with “targeted” communities and local leadership. Lessons from these wars sometimes teach us far more about deficits within “us” rather than an outside “them.” In general, successful interventions require time, patience, collaboration, and humility. Over time, intervention failures cost public support, resist challenge to underlying structural problems, and potentially send the dangerous message that it is intervention that is too costly. The latter narrative can be used to justify dissolution of public responsibility.
And here we are now. What we need is a learning stance, not a war room. The heroes in this pandemic are both those directly “weathering the storm” of this crisis and those racing to implement better information gathering and dissemination systems. We need this built into a global public health system that includes everyone because viruses easily cross boundaries, and are most dangerous to the most vulnerable. In the past, the call to public responsibility was cast in moral terms. Today, a virus reminds us that we can be self-interested in wanting to help the “least” among us: If all individual immune systems are strong, then then we effectively have a strong global immune system in which viruses will pass through without as much notice, without taking this larger “us” down.
If each country – and the world – fully recognized this global public health challenge, the virus would not be so devastating in physical, emotional, and financial cost. And, global health does not begin with responding to disease. It begins with physical and social environments from which healthy immune systems develop. Public health, then, requires attention not only to human bodies but also to the larger political-economies upon which these bodies depend. Our problem in the 21st century is not how to win the war of all wars (history keeps repeating that the last war provides an opening to the next) but rather how to co-exist within an unprecedented global reality of interconnection and interdependence – among people, economies, and microbes.
For now, current crisis intervention reveals systemic weaknesses. While the intervention is for most is to attempt total withdrawal in private shelters, professional others are sent to the “frontlines.” Leaders praise health care workers as “soldiers” sent to battle and yet they have little to no protection; imagine soldiers without helmets as bullets rain down, running into battle without basic masks and gloves. Casualties cannot be blamed solely on a new virus when public services have been left underfunded for years.
In the aftermath of this pandemic, how will we recover from learning yet again lessons of humanity’s inhumanities (that is, “man’s inhumanity to man”)? We can learn from this moment, and the public is eager for assurance. Global security in past wars included such policies as “Mutually Assured Destruction.” Can’t we do better than to pit ourselves against each other in search for mutual survival? Are there not lessons from this global moment that teach us of mutual dependency? And, in the heartwarming stories of people reaching out to each other in crisis, for care, cure, and comfort, is there not a lesson of mutually (re)assuring dependencies? From combat to compassion, can there not be a new rallying cry for this 21st century, global age? Not as “us” against “them” but as in “we are in this together” because there is no next planet, or time, to waste.
This pandemic is a crisis and a further warning, not a call to war. As with climate change, the challenge is how we will mutually exist… several billion people on our little patch of shared existence, viruses and all.