The absence of war? – Covid 19, war metaphors and the German health discourse

Recently, the use of military metaphors when discussing Covid-19 has increased, both in medical literature and mainstream media. While military metaphors are a traditional strategy when used to describe viruses, there has been longstanding debate about the usefulness of such metaphors. 

If one believes that metaphors shape the public understanding, then nations all over the world are at war. This war is not a physical war, but a metaphorical one. In order to introduce SARS-CoV-2 into the public discourse, US President Donald Trump in particular massively used war metaphors, giving the impression that he sees himself as a wartime president. Here, at least one point is understandable: the coronavirus was a poorly understood threat to people worldwide, and it had to be fought.

Not only in the US, but also in many other countries, war and military metaphors are among the most important medicine-related metaphors. This also applies to the corona crisis in Germany, in which the war metaphor has become more and more important: In Germany – although less often than in the US or the UK – there is talk of fighting the corona virus, including media coverage and official publications, including official statements from six ministries and all state news channels (We are fighting a war on the coronavirus; Spearhead in the fight against the coronavirus; The question is how quickly the coronavirus strikes back).
Research into war metaphors is a central theme in medical linguistics, and the topic is highly relevant for everyday medical practice. In fact, we wanted to get closer to the war metaphors in this little study with the help of media texts. In order to work out the meaning of war metaphors, a random sample from a large corpus of German-language press releases was examined (DEREKO magazines and newspapers, approx. 7.2 billion words). It turned out that war metaphors in medical contexts are mainly used in some specific areas, for example …

  • In connection with common diseases (diabetes, obesity).
  • In the context of drug use (war against drugs).
  • Regarding cancer (fighting cancer).
  • In connection with infectious diseases and viruses (new weapon against ZIKA, Ebola, influenza …)

The last usage pattern also applies to the corona crisis, which has caused a certain comeback of the war metaphor: The virus has led to a significant increase in war metaphors. The analysis showed certain functions of the metaphors that were particularly relevant when dealing with Covid-19.

  • Military metaphors create unity, portray disease as a common enemy for all people and stimulate action. They are often used in conjunction with flood and space metaphors (only if all citizens join in, the battle can be won and the coronavirus can be contained). In German press releases, the battle metaphor was used to popularize the protective measures in Germany, especially the lockdown. The Federal Corona Tracking App was described as a Wunderwaffe (miracle weapon).
  • At the same time, military metaphors are used to dramatize and emotionally charge events. Their effects can be both negative (fear, uncertainty: at war with an invisible enemy; Emmanuel Macron) and positive (will, perseverance: Together, we will defeat Covid-19; Angela Merkel).
  • In addition, military metaphors make it clear that one must react quickly and that there is an urgent need for action: The enemy is never sleeping!

In Germany, war metaphors are mainly used when it comes to medical questions and problems that affect society as a whole or a large number of people. Society as a whole is battling a specific disease, such as the coronavirus. However, war metaphors are used far less frequently in Germany and used less drastically than in the American discourse. Although words like fight, battle, weapon and victory are used, there is no talking about soldiers, homefront, frontline and collective sacrifice.

Certain illnesses make up a large part of the war metaphors used in German-language media discourse, while in other areas war metaphors are rarely used. 100 war metaphors from a random sample were analyzed each year. Particularly noteworthy are large virus pandemics in which war metaphors are used particularly intensively.

In the case of individual patients, on the other hand, there is rarely any talk of fighting the disease, except when it comes to cancer. For all other illnesses, the war metaphor will be perceived as problematic in Germany. It must be used with caution, especially in the communication of healthcare providers. The effects can sometimes be positive and sometimes negative:

  • Some war metaphors provide empowerment, because the patient is actively fighting on the battlefield. Regarding the immune system, on the other hand, patients often take a passive, suffering, defensive role on the “battlefield” of medicine. It is important to “fend off” “attacks” by pathogens and diseases. The “battlefield” is not always commanded by the patient, it is often the doctor who makes strategic decisions about how to deal with the disease.
  • In general, war metaphors tend to focus on the treatment of terminal diseases (e.g. cancer or AIDS). On the other hand, the fight against chronic diseases is rare.
  • “Invasion” and “war” are threatening scenarios that can enable patients, but also frighten them. There is a possibility that these metaphors lead to a more aggressive attitude towards the disease by the doctor and patient. This can lead to an excessive or even superfluous prescription of medication and an unnecessarily “hard” therapy in general.

Unlike in other countries, war metaphors are rarely used in German medical discourse and in the pharmaceutical and healthcare market. Politicians tend to avoid war metaphors in general. Drastic words and passionate statements were never Angela Merkel’s style, but other German politicians are following a similar approach. The reason for that cannot be explained entirely, but it is likely that this has something to do with historical reasons. The differences are mainly due to the mentality of the German doctors, but the pacifist attitude of most Germans certainly also plays a role. While they are regularly used in the media, war and combat metaphors often have a negative or irritating effect on German patients and doctors. This must always be considered when dealing with the German healthcare market. Metaphors that are less related to aspects of aggression and competition are preferred in health communication, for example path metaphors (We will make the way out of the crisis) and space metaphors (We will keep the Coronavirus contained). These metaphors have more positive semantics and emphasize aspects of cooperation and joint action, e.g. between doctor and patient. It would be worth considering using them more frequently.

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