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War Metaphors and Pandemics – Why the COVID-19 Vaccine Is No Victory

Victoria Pajak BS’22 Behavioral Neuroscience, Global Health and Pre Med

Since the 1990’s, global pandemics have long been defined in terms of war metaphors. The media and politicians have referred to disease outbreaks as “battles” against invisible “enemies” in order to make novel phenomena more comprehensible to the public. Responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have been no exception. In a press conference in March 2020, Donald Trump declared himself to be a “wartime president” and has since consistently employed war references in addressing the pandemic. War metaphors are often utilized in outbreak narratives as means of conceptualizing highly complex and novel topics in simple and familiar ways. At a time when uncertainty consumes the human condition, that which is familiar becomes useful for making sense of a situation. However, as Priscilla Wald and other scholars interested in outbreak narratives have previously suggested, such metaphors have problematic consequences.

A war mentality on COVID-19 implies that as every battle requires weapons to fight the enemy, a vaccine is necessary in order to eliminate the virus. Seemingly concluding the race for this “magic bullet,” pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and BioNTech have recently reported their study results of a 90% effective vaccine against the SARS-CoV2 virus. “This is a victory for innovation, science and a global collaborative effort,” according to Prof. Ugur Sahin, BioNTech co-founder and CEO. While this news is undoubtedly victorious for science, the same cannot be said for humanity. Among prior discussions on how war rhetoric may alter human cognition and behavior towards a phenomenon, perceiving a vaccine with such a mentality opens the possibility for two dangerous conclusions: That the war on COVID must end in victory, and that solutions to the pandemic lie solely in science and medicine.

A victory implies the presence of a definitive victor as well as one who is defeated. Although the COVID vaccine weapon mentality is supposedly useful for instilling hope during this pandemic, it disregards the real possibility of defeat. Since his initial address, Donald Trump noted that the nation will experience “a complete victory” over the coronavirus by the conclusion of 2020. Despite the positive Pfizer report, scientists report that the vaccine is unlikely to become available to the majority of citizens until 2021. Additionally, it’s methods of distribution are unknown and will undoubtedly be less accessible to disadvantaged populations. While widespread vaccination will help decrease the number of deaths due to lowered infection rates, Americans will continue to get sick and experience “defeat” against the virus. Furthermore, with vaccine news emerging at a time when many states, such as Minnesota and Indiana are reporting the greatest numbers of coronavirus infections per day since April, it seems unfitting to declare the announcement a complete win. Declaring a preemptive victory over a pandemic is harmful as it may equip people with false senses of immunity while in reality, the catastrophes inflicted by the COVID pandemic are projected to be far from over.  Bioethicist Arthur Kaplan supports this degree of skepticism: “I think we’re going to have to continue our behavioral efforts — the masking and distancing and quarantining and the testing and so on — in parallel with vaccination because it would be very, very surprising if we got a very highly effective vaccine first one out of the box.”  How long the effects of the vaccine will last are unclear; However, it is certain that these behavioral measures are effective at slowing the spread of infection and an early emphasis on victory may distract from these daily, life-saving actions.  Weaponizing the vaccine is then insufficient for understanding how the pandemic will end and the reality of how proposed treatments will impact individual lives. Unlike in battle where a victor and loser eventually cease fire and part ways, limitations of the vaccine and other unaddressed barriers to widespread COVID immunity question the reality of a definitive victory over the pandemic.

Furthermore, a war mentality on vaccination implies that the power in overcoming the threat solely lies in the effectiveness of the drug and skill of the researchers and health practitioners involved in its delivery. Countlessly throughout this pandemic, researchers and healthcare workers have been called “heroes,” working tirelessly to provide the public with hope and relief. While recognition for their selfless efforts is indisputably deserving, this language reinforces the harmful stereotype of science and medical professionals as sole possessors of the cure. In response to the Pfizer report, the UK’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, named the vaccine a demonstration of the “power of science.” A purely scientific solution via vaccination, however, may not be the only answer to this complex problem. After all, it is important to consider that in being 90% effective in the interim, the proposed drug remains 10% ineffective. Furthermore, the ethical, social, and political concerns of what it means to remain safe from the virus cannot be addressed by a simple injection. Gaps in knowledge then call for continued research into additional means of protection as well as other methods of understanding how the disease destroys human wellbeing. Epistemic knowledge is necessary to compensate for these inadequacies in science and to continue navigating the uncertainties of this virus. Equating the creation of a vaccine to the victory of science against a biological war is dangerous in that it limits methods of making meaning at a time when much remains unknown.

As a critical tool in communicating health information, the language used in addressing pandemics must be carefully considered to avoid potentially harmful narratives. Labeling the COVID-19 vaccine as a defeat against the virus can prevent people from recognizing novel ways to further stop infections, as well as limits methods of understanding the disease to science. It is not by cultivating such war rhetoric that will conclude this pandemic. Instead, successfully eradicating it will be a continuous and collective effort – One that involves maintaining safe everyday practices as the search for interdisciplinary answers to the mysterious nature of this virus continues.

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