Make Health, Not War: In Search of Long-Term Survival

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.

6 thoughts on “Make Health, Not War: In Search of Long-Term Survival”

  1. The author’s point on war metaphors is well taken, and I completely agree that the language we craft around a specific situation can greatly impact how we react to it. One example I would also bring up here is the “War on Drugs” started in the early 1970’s and still evolving today. The war on drugs is especially interesting to me because it seems to have failed in almost every single one of its original goals – drug use increased, drug-related violence increased, drug trafficking increased, etc. Additionally, the war on drugs also exacerbated racial inequities in the United States resulting in an exploding prison population disproportionately composed of minorities, and an increasingly militarized police force. As the author points out, I think declaring war on specific issues does indeed miss the larger point.

    Back to the author’s main contention that declaring war COVID-19 might be a misguided approach, I agree. To me, the most important point made in the article is that a public health approach to such a crisis needs to involve everyone, especially those that are most vulnerable in our society. Most people are coming around to this idea, and I would like to think it is because they truly think all people deserve to be protected, but even if it comes from a place of self-interest (as in “hey if the most vulnerable are taken care of I am less likely to get the virus in the long run”), I am fine with that even if I personally disagree with that mentality. Crises like the one we are currently facing cause us to evaluate our institutions and determine if they are functioning as we, as a society, want them to. Approaching the current crisis with war-like language and metaphors can hinder this necessary self-reflection and keep us from facing the underlying issues being amplified by the pandemic.

    This virus is not some foreign invading military force, it is simply a part of this planet, just like we are. In fact there is a strong argument to be made that the planet itself, as a whole, is a living organism populated by other living organisms, much in the same way our bodies are made up of other living organisms (bacteria being an easy example here). The idea that we should approach such a virus with a war-like mentality is archaic and outdated. My biggest worry with this mentality is that we as humans end up pitting ourselves against each other, creating a mentality of “scarcity” where we find ourselves believing that others receiving the help they need will limit us getting the help we need, when reality does not support that mentality. The truth is we can structure our public health institutions to equitably serve everyone, but that is a decision we, as a whole, need to make and demand because in my opinion it is unlikely to happen without massive public pressure.

    This virus has been absolutely devastating, and now we have a choice on whether we want some good to come out of it in terms of how we, as a collective, want to approach similar situations in the future (e.g. climate change). I hope we do better, and an initial step we can make is to leave the war metaphors behind.

  2. This is an interesting discussion which highlights an issue that is often forgotten, the words we choose matter. Whenever one turns on the news anymore, terms like “war,” “conflict,” and “frontlines” are tossed around. As a previous commenter mentioned though, these terms produce some form of familiarity for people. It is much easier for us to imagine going to war with a specific virus then it is to accept that covid-19 and its other corona family members with constantly be with us long after life returns to normal. It is easier for us to imagine our bodies repelling the foreign invader that will make us sick rather then visualizing our bodies slowly getting use to the virus and living along side it. On a national scale, “war” and “conflict” conjures up images of mass mobilization and preparation (which perhaps may be useful?). The average American is likely familiar with the images of mobilization from WWII and everyday citizens doing their part to help the war effort. “War,” “conflict,” and “frontlines” are powerful terms that can compel people to do their part. Wars though can also be won and that adds to the appeal of such metaphors. One can win a war but only ride out a storm. While a pandemic is perhaps closer to a storm then a war, the image of us coming out of the pandemic victorious is certainly more appealing. This is likely due to the fact that one losing some element of control in simply riding out the storm.

    That is what makes this article interesting in that it highlights that these familiar terms could have deeper, underlying problems that would not likely be considered. As seen, people have come together in this trying time. They have largely done so with compassion and empathy and not an adversarial “us v. corona” mentality. Perhaps it is time for a better metaphor to be used.

  3. Like everyone before me has said, this is definitely an “unprecedented time”. I feel like that phrase is thrown around all too often. Even though many people and news outlets are quick to throw around the war jargon, it is easily forgotten that this is not the first conflict the world has experienced. I think that the war language is too harsh. However, I believe that people use it because it is easy to visualize. It is not as easy to picture a virus that lives inside of you as a killing machine. But it is a lot less difficult to picture a gun pointing at you or a tank in the middle of a war zone. Those are the images that pop into one’s head when they think about a worldwide crisis. For many, this brings back images of WW1, WW2, or even those of the civil war that were featured in their history textbooks. We have been conditioned to picture a bloody battlefield and lots of trauma. However, in reality, this is a different type of crisis. This is not a crisis that should be framed with the same vocabulary as a world war. I think a lot of this has to do with the environment we live in. Everyone is so easily divided. In many ways, we are not united. Even before the virus, all forms of media talk about things like school shootings, international conflict, and terrorism. Thus, we assume that the virus is some sort of attack. And, we forget that this is affecting everyone. It does not matter what country you live in. This is affecting the world as a whole. This is not a weapon. It is a peacemaker. As a global society, we have become too advanced and too separated from each other and the environment we live in. We have been living in a crisis far longer than this virus has existed.
    This virus is a way of showing that we need to come back together. We need to hit the reset button in a sense. This is not a time to stand on a battlefield. This is the time to stand together as one. What this virus has done is highlighted the conflicts that exist in the world. Although a lot of these are a lot more intricate and go back a long time, there is room for cooperation and peace. This is meant to show that we need to work together. The world functions better when we remember that we are an “us” and work for the good of all. Everyone has a common interest here. We all want to remain healthy and put an end to the pandemic. We all want to return to the lives we had before. However, the only way this can truly end is if we return to those lives with a new outlook. We need to cherish the time we have with others. We must not take opportunities for granted. Forgiveness can be a good thing. Friendships are important. It is important to take care of ourselves. But we must always remember that there are others who we need to care for.

  4. This crisis has been incredibly interesting to live and learn about because nearly all of this could have been planned against and minimized. With an interconnected world and a network of government organization relationships, all of this could have been addressed and minimized. Likely, this will not be the last virus pandemic that impacts the world as this has been eerily similar to SARS. With society ever growing and pushing to expand their borders, the risk of increased exposure to new pathogens will probably grow. Thus, it will be important to plan for the next round once we are able to get through the current stage that surrounds us now.

    When looking at statistics recently thrown around on the news it becomes increasingly obvious that the current funding provided to WHO is insufficient. The purpose of WHO is to not only find and address viruses in specific regions and countries, but also to create a cooperative network of countries in order to work together to minimize casualties. Clearly that did not work this time for a variety of reasons. However, while the World Health Organization needs to be addressed moving forward, the policies that come out of this pandemic will be incredibly important. These policies may have long lasting effects on how our society as a whole works as well as the verbiage that policy makers decide to use when addressing these policies. I would like to hope that everything will come together to make a perfect fit on addressing the problems as well as planning for the next one, however, due to the polarization that we have today, I would imagine it is easier to deflect blame than to truly make a change.

  5. I would also like to comment that in times of crisis, it’s a good time to practice self-care and check in on ourselves. Although, I 100% believe in this pandemic and believe the safety measures should be in place, sometimes watching and reading certain news outlets and talking with others about the crisis creates a self-panic. This self-panic can manifest in different ways, such as overstocking on food and PPE. Other times, self-panic can lead to anxiety, sleeplessness, fatigue, depression, nausea, and other symptoms.

    I think it is incredibly important for those of us that cannot do much to help the cause (aka we are not doctors, nurses, social workers, essential workers, and others) to take time to cook healthier meals, workout, meditate, clean, organize, and make sure we are staying healthy–not only physically but mentally. (Obviously, if you cannot do all of these things, that make’s sense because we are in a pandemic and experiencing crisis for multiple different reasons. Also some people live a more privileged life than others, which means they are able to have the free time and resources to workout, mediate, cook healthy meals, and the like. My overall point is to try to combat some of the feelings we may be having.)

    This is also a good time to check in with friends and family that have a history of depression, substance abuse, and other conditions. Even though we are in a pandemic, each person still lives with a life full of their own crisis. For some individuals, it is unsafe to live in their own home because of substances or physical abuse. So while we come together as survivors of this pandemic, let us come together to help those that may be staying at home but still needing our support and love.

  6. Perhaps I am foolish and overly simplistic, but I look at the global response to the pandemic through the lens of the cycle of acceptance. First came denial, then came anger. The anger leads easily into the idea of going to war with the virus. It’s a palliative reaction, especially in the sense that it kills the pain without dealing with the actual underlying condition. Depression follows anger, but in this case I get the sense that it’s been going hand-in-hand with anger.

    The final stages are bargaining and (final) acceptance. Perhaps if we can turn the bargaining stage into actual international dialog and cooperation (something that seems oh-so-quaint in our nationalist/populist global body politic) then maybe the acceptance stage would make it dawn on those who wield power over nations that we are all in the same boat, and the boat’s been taking on too much water.

    I see local communities come together and get to the last stage quickly. I admit that it’s easier when small groups don’t hold the power to change things in large scale, but it seems to me as though the impetus to get to the final stage may need to come from the bottom up instead of the top down. So if the people in my neighborhood are able to identify a common goal and almost wordlessly negotiate a way forward, is it naive to think that maybe the world’s leaders could do something similar?

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