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Wartime metaphors around battling COVID-19 are not helping anyone

Boris Johnson TV address PA

Wartime metaphors around battling COVID-19 are not helping anyone

Ever since politicians labelled COVID-19 as the ‘invisible enemy’ I have felt uncomfortable at the idea that we are engaged in a war that we can somehow vanquish with brute strength rather than science.

And while it is true, that in these surreal times, it can feel almost comforting to pour our nervous energies into a narrative that is all about battening down the hatches and doing our bit for the national effort, that kind of jingoistic hyperbole also leads to panic buying and an escalation of fear.

The wartime metaphors around battling COVID-19 are many and they are not helping anyone.

And not least, prime minister, Boris Johnson, who following his admission to an intensive care unit last week has been painted in equal measure as a war hero and a martyr to the cause.

One tabloid even chastised the nation, saying Johnson had continued to work while ill and we should now all pray at home for him. As if guilt tripping a country, already in enforced lockdown, will help improve the national psyche.

His deputy, the foreign security Dominic Raab described Johnson as a “fighter” and former prime minister David Cameron described him as “very tough, very resilient, very fit” and said that from facing him on the tennis court, he was sure the prime minister would come through this. As if having a strong forehand offers some magical resilience against a virus that no one yet understands.

The language of sport often echoes that same wartime rhetoric and on Friday, the PM’s father, Stanley Johnson, suggesting that his son “almost took one for the team”, had the same melodramatic sense of sacrifice bravely borne. It is, frankly, for the birds.

Machismo will not act as a deterrent to an illness that doesn’t respect social stereotyping and while all our best must lie with Johnson who is slowly recovering from a grave illness, he was wrong a month ago to have boasted about shaking the hands of infected patients and then going on to continue with business as usual.

But even as things changed and advice was going out from the NHS that we should all keep two metres apart, Johnson was at his podium, unmasked, and briefing the country within what looked like transmission range of his medical and scientific advisers.

Now he, one of them and many others in his cabinet have fallen ill.

Boris Johnson was not a hero for going to work when he was ill, he was risking his own life at a crucial time for our country.

What is it about certain men that makes them think they can battle on through and that it is somehow an admission of weakness to succumb to a disease that can clearly have life threatening consequences?

We are not in a war and the many thousands of people who have already died from this virus did not do so because they didn’t fight enough, they died because we couldn’t cure them and no amount of putting on a brave face, or pulling up our socks,  will bring them back now. We owe it to them to stop talking about war and make peace with our fallibility.

The broadcaster, Danny Baker, once said of his cancer, “I didn’t fight it, I just lay there, and my body was the battlefield where others did the fighting for me.”

And he was right. It is those people who are the heroes, the NHS staff and the care workers who, to slip into wartime metaphors for a moment, are being sent into the trenches without the armoury - the PPE - they need to fight this illness and that is where the politicians should now focus their words and their actions.

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