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Analysing the Narrative Around the COVID Pandemic: a War or a Slog?

Crow and seagull images counterposed as if in opposition

The rain was coming down in sheets. The gloomy clouds blanket the sky. Makes you want to tuck into your nest and pull your tail in around you! 

Humans love metaphor. Public relations practitioners, governments and news organizations especially love the war metaphor. There’s been the War on Drugs, the widely debunked “war on Christmas”, Cancer Warriors, the War on Terror, the battle for the heart and soul of America. Sometimes it seems everything is viewed through a lens of opposing forces. 

In organizing the scale of response required to respond to a challenge like a pandemic, the most natural and fitting metaphor seems to be war. 

We are fighting a silent enemy!

Front-line workers are battling through!

In war-rooms, doctors plan their strategic attack!

Back in April 2020, Costanza Musu, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa, recognized this framing and wrote about it in The Conversation.

So, is this narrative frame useful and helpful? 

How it started

During the World Wars, propaganda stirred patriotic fervor to ensure people volunteered to fight and complied with challenges like food rationing. Painting suffering and sacrifice as noble goes back further than the 1900s of course, as does war, but propaganda came into its own at that time, after the study of psychology started to come into vogue. Edward Bernays, using insights from his uncle Sigmund Freud, left a mixed legacy in the form of public relations, marketing and propaganda. Mixed because influencing the public imagination can be beneficial to progress society — think of climate change, civil rights, and so on.

But these tools are easily co-opted for less altruistic purposes.  

For instance, in 1929, Bernays tapped into the women’s movement for inspiration to sell more cigarettes. It was taboo for women to smoke in public, so Bernays labelled the Lucky Strikes the bold suffragettes were lighting “torches of freedom”

Torches of freedom. Sounds almost like… patriotic war imagery? 

How it’s going

Here in the 2020s, there is a general recognition of how manipulative patriotic images can be, while at the same time, a burgeoning white supremacist movement weaponizes them. In the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol in Washington DC, a cobbled-together symbology of a new patriotism was evident — symbols of the old South like Confederate flags joined “Punisher” tattoos, Betsy Ross flags, orange Proud Boy badges, and more. These symbols showed that the mob had internalized a sense that they were at war. 

This insurrection was the product of years of stoking a “patriotic” them-versus-us war mentality with constant repetition of the narrative of a ‘culture war’. 

“Sometimes a cigar…”

But is it fair to link a narrative tool used to stoke hate to a simple, useful way to describe the fight against a pandemic? 

Maybe. We know narratives matter. The words we use in our heads to describe a thing can have a long-term ripple effect on how we think, individually and as a population. 

Recently, the podcast Citations Needed did an episode called The 80-Year PR Campaign that Killed Universal Healthcare. I highly recommend it if you’ve ever wondered how the USA has managed to cling to costly private healthcare. Think about this: since the 1990s, the narrative frame (proposed and constructed by the insurance industry) “government-led” healthcare has become the norm. This positioning is usually stated in opposition to “regular health care” or private healthcare — ie, the kind that corporations control, set the price for and Americans pay for. There has long been a well-fostered apprehensiveness of government that seems to be inherent in the American public: our neighbors are far more likely to be suspicious of government motives than those of private industries.

Our WeavEast Narrative Project with How We Thrive dove into some of the narratives that no longer serve us, and sought ways to reframe the challenges we face. This isn’t toxic positivity. This is about seeing an interpretation that has been applied to a concept by some entity/entities before we learned it, and then critically deconstructing that interpretation. 

When we think of the pandemic as a war, as we are seeing recently, sometimes it leads to turning on each other, to ferret out the “turncoats and traitors.” When students were publicly identified as potentially contributing to the outbreak, people turned on them, calling for lifelong consequences. They were threatened and had property damaged. The framing of war means they were working with the enemy. There was no space for human empathy, for kindness or forgiveness. 

Keep calm and carry on

This morning I read an article on Global, where Senator Stan Kutcher posited that it’s best to think of COVID-19 as a “slog”. To slog is to “work hard over a period of time”. It’s not nearly as visual or stirring as the snapping flags of military might that war metaphors conjure. It’s more prosaic, mundane. Quotidian. Less nobility, more steadfastness. 

“It’s very useful to think about the pandemic as a slog,” said Kutcher. “Because that construct tells us we don’t like it and we’re not happy with it and those are normal human emotions and let’s accept them, that’s the reality, but we have to get on with it and we have to do what needs to be done.”

So, like cleaning the litterbox and sorting the trash, like writing end of term papers or nursing a croupy baby, this pandemic is a thing we just need to get through.

It’s not a visceral enemy, it is a period of unpleasant tasks and we will get through it. That’s less glamorous than vanquishing a foe. And maybe that’s okay. 

Battling fear

All of this is a great mental exercise, but people are scared. They need assurance. Does the idea of a “slog” have the life-or-death gravity that really shows how scared we are? 

We know in communities across the province and region, this pandemic is landing differently. There are some who feel mostly inconvenienced, and others who feel mortally threatened. There are people grieving for loved ones, and others grieving for lost plans and dreams. Some people are suffering long-term COVID effects, and others are worried about the long-term effects of social isolation on their children. These are all valid reactions. 

Staying in that agitated fight or flight mode is exhausting, physically, mentally and spiritually. Dr. Kutcher’s framing as a slog makes it clear that this exhaustion is normal. 

“You feel disheartened, you may feel demoralized, you may feel distressed but that’s OK because that’s how you are supposed to feel when you are faced with this,” said Kutcher. “If you felt happy and joyful, then there’s a problem.”

Bonus soundtrack tune.

Other links:

War Metaphors in Political Communication on Covid-19. Eunice Castro Seixas. Frontiers in Sociology:
Front. Sociol., 25 January 2021 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fsoc.2020.583680. Retrieved from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fsoc.2020.583680/full, May 4, 2021.

Communication and Cultural Thought Patterns https://www.callearning.com/blog/2010/06/communication-and-cultural-thought-patterns/

Seagull photo by Matthias Zomer from Pexels. Crow image Pixabay via Pexels. Woman photo by Polina Tankilevitch from Pexels

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