This is certainly not the first time leaders and policy-makers have used the war metaphor to describe a threat that does not qualify as military. Think the war on poverty, on cancer, on illegal immigration, not to mention the war on drugs or on crime.
While highly appealing as a tool of political rhetoric, the war metaphor hides several pitfalls that, in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, are particularly dangerous.
Are we all soldiers now?
Using the war metaphor shuffles categorizations in insidious ways. For example, we are no longer citizens; we are now “soldiers” in a conflict. As such, politicians call for obedience rather than awareness and appeal to our patriotism, not to our solidarity.
It is under the guise of these categorizations that we have already seen, across the world, shifts towards dangerous authoritarian power-grabs, as in Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orbán seized wide-ranging emergency powers and the ability to rule by decree.
Similarly, in the Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, in the context of a national emergency bill, gained the right to punish people spreading “false information” about the outbreak, a right that could easily be used to silence political dissent.
In the United Kingdom, a country with robust democratic institutions, the Coronavirus Bill gave government ministries the power to detain and isolate people, ban public gatherings including protests and shut down ports and airports. Health Secretary Matt Hancock put it this way:
“The measures that I have outlined are unprecedented in peacetime. We will fight this virus with everything we have. We are in a war against an invisible killer and we have to do everything we can to stop it.”
In Alberta, the passing of Bill 10 gives the premier and his cabinet broad and extraordinary powers. Moreover, defining the pandemic as war leads inevitably to the need to identify an enemy. The enemy here is the the coronavirus, but many politicians have also added qualifiers to the enemy virus.