International Center for Ethics in the Sciences and Humanities (IZEW)

Why we are not at war with the Corona virus

(nor should we start)

by Marcel Vondermaßen

02. Apr 2020 · Politicians, journalists, and even scientists these days like to use the metaphor of war to describe the efforts that will now be necessary against the novel corona virus: "Sars-CoV-2 is our common enemy. We must declare war on this virus. This means that countries have a responsibility to do more, to arm themselves and to strengthen." (António Guterres in a guest article for the Süddeutsche Zeitung, March 15, 2020) At first glance, this drastic choice of words seems to make sense if one considers the restrictions and changes that this pandemic is imposing on us. Most of those who make these statements do so with good intentions: to invoke the seriousness of the situation and to stress the need to stand together against an external threat. But a focus on war metaphors prevents us from focusing on those values that are indispensable for overcoming the crisis: personal responsibility, caring, empathy. 

At first glance, the problematic side effects of past "declarations of war" do not seem to apply in this crisis either. For example, various wars against organized crime, for example in Mexico or Brazil, have above all led to high numbers of victims among the population rather than to a pacification of the respective conflict. The "war on terror" has not only cost tens of thousands of civilians their lives, but has also suspended or weakened the principles of the rule of law. Guantanamo is only the most visible beacon. In the "war on drugs", especially in the USA, massive emphasis is placed on repression and imprisonment. For a long time the fact was ignored that the declared "enemies", dealers and consumers, are often addicts themselves. Today, the realization is gradually gaining ground that phenomena such as the opium crisis cannot be solved by the police and certainly not by military means, but only by medical and social means.

In the current case, it could be objected that the enemies are not human beings, but viruses. And the "weapons" that we intend to use would not cause collateral damage. So is the choice of words in this case unproblematic?

But "declarations of war" have another effect (and that is) on the group of people at war. Military language brings with it expectations: obedience, homogeneity, hierarchy, unquestioned trust in authority. Points that are useful and vital for military operations. Deviations and disobedience can endanger lives and are severely punished. 

However, military logics quickly reach their limits. It is not without reason that soldiers are (usually) not used for police activities. The language of war and the logic of military structures are not compatible with complex and pluralistic social structures: individual needs, forbearance, social warmth, creative solutions, taking responsibility independently, and so on. Many of the strengths and behaviours necessary to overcome the current crisis and to create a community in solidarity in the future do not find a place in war metaphors.

The Corona Pandemic is a crisis that needs clear guidelines and regulations. But it is also a disease wave that needs a language of care. Supermarkets and hospitals should not form "fronts" against the virus. Policemen and possibly also soldiers, who are soon to enforce curfews in different places, i.e. stop actually worried or frightened people on the street, should not think of themselves as soldiers in war. We should establish a language of concern in which the security forces see themselves more as an extension of the nurses and doctors. Strict, but also caring, unyielding in the enforcement of necessary measures, but empathetic to the fears of others. The crisis should not be militarized, but rather "civilized".