Is the war rhetoric around Covid-19 an Anglo-American thing?

Reading the news reporting on Covid-19 in the British media, one cannot but be struck by the use of metaphors of war. We are literally ‘bombarded’ with them every day. As soon as it became obvious that the new coronavirus poses a serious threat to the public health in Britain, newspapers across the country were competing with each other to frame the virus in terms of war and combat.  On 11 March, The Daily Mail called on the public to summon up the “Blitz spirit” to face down the Coronavirus because “we are at war and need to deal with the outbreak in same way our predecessors did”. The Sun followed suit by urging Brits to “invoke the spirit of the Blitz to beat the coronavirus” (17th March). The Guardian too, reported on “private hospitals joining the forces to fight the virus” (14th March) and scientists who ‘formed the new front in the battle against coronavirus” (13th March). Across the pond, on 20th March, The New York Times asked whether “Our fight against coronavirus [is] worse than the disease?” and then on 30th March declared that the US is “Not winning the fight”. Interestingly, news in Germany seems to, mostly, abstain from the use of war metaphors. While there are occasional references to ‘Kampf’ (battle), the language seems to be, on the whole, less ballistic. So, what kind of language does the German press reporting use to frame the outbreak of Covid-19?

In order to investigate the kind of language media are using to frame Covid-19 and to what extent it differs across cultural and linguistic contexts, I complied corpora of press coverage of the pandemic in the UK, US and Germany. Using the database Nexis and two search terms Coronavirus OR Covid-19, I collected articles about the Coronavirus and/or Covid-19 published between 7th January and the end of March 2020. As the starting point, the date of 7th January was selected, given that on this day the Chinese authorise officially reported the presence of a novel virus (later named SARS-CoV2) responsible for the disease that would be labelled Covid-19. Major newspapers from the three countries available on Nexis were selected. For the UK, the broadsheets The Guardian and The Times as well as ‘regular’ and middle-range tabloids such as The Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph, The Mirror and The Sun were collected. For the US, The New York Times, The New York Post, USA Today and Los Angeles Times were included. The German corpus was comprised of articles from Der Spiegel, Die Tageszeitung (TAZ), Die Welt und Bunte. Table 1 shows the sizes of the three corpora.  

CorpusNo. of ArticlesCorpus size
UK_Corpus4,0954,356,873
USA_Corpus3,1901,058,809
DE_Corpus1,424950,491
Table 1: Newspaper data 7 February to 22 March 2020; search terms Coronavirus OR Covid-19

To explore the framings of the pandemic, I used a corpus-based approach, specifically focusing on collocations. Collocations are simply words that occur regularly in the vicinity of the search term and can point to dominant discourses with which the term is associated. Coronavirus was selected as the search term since it has been more widely used than the official scientific term (SARS CoV2), and the disease caused by the virus was not dubbed Covid-19 until early February. I used Sketch Engine and the tool Word Sketch to identify collocations of Coronavirus. In contrast to other tools that retrieve collocations, Word Sketch additionally groups them according to their grammatical and syntactical position in relation to the search terms allowing for the identification of verbs that occur with the search term in the subject or object position, its frequent modifiers etc. It also includes a visualisation tool to show the results. I only considered collocations with the LogDice score of 7 or above (LogDice is useful to compare collocations across corpora of different sizes) and a minimum frequency of 5. Following previous studies, colocations retrieved using these parameters were deemed strong collocational partners.       

Sketching the Coronavirus in the UK, USA and German Media

Figure 1 shows a visualisation of collocations of Coronavirus in the UK press. Only verbs and modifiers were included since they were the largest grammatical categories of collocations.  As can be seen, the words that occur in the vicinity of Coronavirus are often words taken from the domain of warfare or violence.


Figure 1: Collocations of Coronavirus in the UK press

In fact, out of the 49 collocates shown in the diagram, 8 are specific references from the domain of war (‘battle’, ‘combat’, ‘surround’, ‘defeat’) or violence/physical fight (‘beat’, ‘fight’, ‘hit’, ‘tackle’). These are particularly prominent in the category of verbs that occur with the search term as an object suggesting that measures of halting the pandemic are framed as similar to those needed in a war or fight.

A similar situation, although with fewer instances of war and fight references, can be observed in the US press coverage (Figure 2). Here too, we find words such as ‘fight’, ‘combat’, ‘kill’ and ‘hit’ in the vicinity of coronavirus suggesting a similar approach as in the UK press.


Figure 2: Collocations of Coronavirus in the US press

The fewer instances of war and violence metaphors in this corpus may be a reflection of the pandemic timeline in the US and the rather inactive stance on the part of its government in the beginning of the spread of the virus.

Looking at the German data (see Figure 3), we do not find many instances of this kind of language. Among the strongest collocates of Coronavirus, only two verbs come from the domain of warfare ‘bekämpfen’ (meaning fighting or combat) and ‘besiegen’ (defeat). We find other words that are frequently used in the vicinity  of Coronavirus that were conspicuously absent from collocates in the UK and US corpus; these include ‘informieren’ (to inform), ‘untersuchen’ (to investigate/test), ‘entwickeln’ (to develop) and ‘vergleichen’ (to compare); also the verb ‘testen’ (to test) is one of the strongest collocates in the German data. All the verbs point to the significance of an approach grounded in science and also communication about the disease.


Figure 3: Collocations of Coronavirus in the German press

The absence of war and violence metaphors can also have its historical reasons; war rhetoric and specifically words coined during the Nazi time are not productive as source domains in the German press discourse and are used only in original historical references (Schröter, 2018); it would indeed be rather odd, to say the least, to see the German press evoking the Blitz spirit during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Studying language used to describe illness is important for many reasons. Language not only reflects the world around us; it can also reinforce reasoning and influence the ways people act and behave. As research by Elena Semino and others (e.g. Semino et al. 2018; Demmen et al., 2015) on the role of metaphors in health communication has shown, using war metaphors can sometimes be constructive in that it can mobilize public health efforts; but when it comes to patients, particularly those who suffer from deadly conditions, they can be distressing and even unethical, specifically if they or their doctors are not “winning the battle”. Also, the kind of qualities that a military mobilization requires – also metaphorically – such as strong character and muscles are not going to help us stop infections and slow the death rate. It is an inadequate approach, since the coronavirus does not distinguish between ‘friends’ and ‘enemies’; it can affect us all whatever our physical strength and moral stance. Testing and developing treatment options as well as clear public communication will be more successful.

References

Schröter, M. (2018). How words behave in other languages: the use of German Nazi vocabulary in English. Pragmatics and Society, 9(1): 93–118.   

Demmen, J.E., Semino, E., Demjen, Z., Koller, V., Hardie, A., Rayson, P., Payne, S. (2015). A computer-assisted study of the use of violence metaphors for cancer and end of life by patients, family carers and health professionals. International Journal of Corpus Linguistics, 20(2): 205–231.

Semino, E., Demjen, Z., Demmen, J.E. (2018). An integrated approach to metaphor and framing in cognition, discourse and practice, with an application to metaphors for cancer. Applied Linguistics, 39(5): 625–645.

10 thoughts on “Is the war rhetoric around Covid-19 an Anglo-American thing?

  1. Very interesting! I note that the Washington Post covered German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier who said, “This pandemic is not a war… It does not pit nations against nations, or soldiers against soldiers. Rather, it is a test of our humanity.” Your article also makes me think of the American naval captain who got fired for writing a letter that stated, ““[W]e are not at war, and therefore cannot allow a single Sailor to perish as a result of this pandemic unnecessarily.”

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  2. An interesting and informative article…
    Language plays a crucial role in conveying our thoughts as well as conceptualizing our concepts.

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  3. Random speculation: To what extent do you think the war frame reflects the specific politics of Covid in the UK? So much of the debate has actually been about the NHS and it’s social value (with Brexit uncertainties a relevant backdrop). There is a lot of focus on resource mobilisation which suggests military comparison??

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