Are we "at war" with COVID-19? That's what we might believe from a quick tour of the planet's most powerful leaders, from the presidents of the United States and France to the director general of the World Health Organization to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who declared that we are in the middle of "a war to save humanity."
Germany's Head of State, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier countered the bellicose rhetoric, saying this crisis wasn't a war to save humanity, but "a test of our humanity." A subtle but powerful distinction.
Still, looking around, there is something to wartime references: we are mobilizing massive human and economic forces, rationing key supplies, fighting a common enemy (the virus), all which requires heroes, sacrifice and a collective spirit.
It's also true that when you're in a war, rules change. Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban used the crisis to introduce new measures to virtually rule by decree without any time limit. Other countries such as Israel, South Korea and Singapore have launched tracking smartphone apps that will collect users' location data, for now with the purpose of containing the spread of the virus. But later? Will some governments utilize the new capabilities to further infringe on personal liberties?
Indeed, timing is everything. A war usually ends with the signature of an armistice. But there is no certain way to know when we will consider that the crisis is over. Neurology resident Adina Wise writes in Scientific American magazine: "If we are ‘at war" for an undetermined amount of time, battle fatigue may derail all efforts. Leaders would do better to promote civil responsibility and global solidarity instead of the idea of warfare. Finding a solution to the pandemic is a shared responsibility, and the solution must be global."
That solution, ultimately, is finding an efficient treatment, a vaccine or a drug to cure the virus. The number one priority is not some kind of victory "in a show of political force", as "in a health crisis, there is no balance of power with the virus', says French historian Bénédicte Chéron in Le Monde. We don't need violent strategies and soldiers, we need research and scientists.
Yes, the language we use to describe the crisis matters. An analysis of media coverage of the pandemic from a team from the University of Reading in the UK revealed that American and British journalists rely much more on the war rhetoric than their German counterparts, who tend to use a more scientific vocabulary. According to Dr Sylvia Jaworska, Associate Professor in Applied Linguistics, this scientific approach may reflect the country's quick and efficient response to the virus, as Germany has registered fewer deaths than other European countries, despite being the most populated in the EU.
"The reality is that the coronavirus doesn't distinguish between ‘friends' and ‘enemies' and no matter our physical strength or character they will not be enough to slow the death rate on their own," Jaworska writes. "Clear communication, along with effective testing and treatment options, will be what wins the fight against COVID-19." A fight? That sounds more like it.