On COVID-19, let’s lose the language of war

While words born from conflict seem to fly in headlines and internal memos, there might be a better way to frame the challenges we all face together.

In a parallel, COVID-free universe, May 9, 2020, is a day of color and celebration, street parties, concerts, parades and events. World leaders are coming together in a spirit of friendship and cooperation. The media is replete with reminiscences — some joyous, some somber — about the end of WWII, as commemorations of the 75th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe dominate the news agenda.

It’s a long way from today’s reality of empty streets, shuttered businesses, closed venues and daily press briefings with their rolling statistics of infections and death. The new language on everyone’s tongues: lockdown, social distancing, PPE and ICU.

Nevertheless, leaders all over the world have still been reaching for the language of war.

It was at the beginning of the crisis that President Trump described himself as a “war president.” France’s President Macron declared repeatedly in a public address that “we are at war,” while U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson suggested we are fighting “a second battle of Britain.”

Meanwhile, headline writers have been evoking images of doctors “on the front line” desperate for “ammunition;” of patients “losing the battle” against the “enemy.”

The temptation for journalists and politicians alike to characterize COVID-19 in terms of national conflict seems almost irresistible. In the case of politicians, it allows them to paint themselves in heroic colors and lay the groundwork for extreme, expensive and potentially unpopular measures. For journalists, it provides them with the simple scaffolding for a straightforward, attention-grabbing story of good vs. evil, rather than the more nuanced and complex reality.

For everybody else, living with the practical challenges of arranging home-schooling around home-working, anxiety for loved ones, financial worries and the rest, this kind of escalation in rhetoric is far from helpful.

At best, by presenting the epidemic as a hostile outside force rather than a public health emergency that can be managed and mitigated, it absolves those in charge of responsibility. At worst, it actively makes things worse by releasing individuals from a sense of personal responsibility and stigmatizing those who don’t recover from the virus as “losers.”

Sadly, fewer than ever of those who remember the Second World War are around to describe it. But those who do seldom talk in terms of battles and heroism. For many—especially women—the abiding memory is one of an ordinary life lived in the face of continual anxiety, of making do with less, of boredom interrupted by fear.

One such account belongs to the universally-loved Julie Andrews who, interviewed in the Guardian this week about her new children’s story podcast, (released early because of the COVID-19 crisis), draws a parallel between now and the 1940s in much more human terms:

“Then, I was very concerned and worried and frightened and anxious, and one didn’t know where the next wave would come. But one thing I did recognize as a child was the amount of bonding that happened in England because of the war, and I feel the same feelings in America here at this moment.”

It’s heartening to hear, from the world’s nanny-in-chief, about the strength and importance of human connection amid the storm of daily bombast. And it suggests that while leaders and commentators might be misguided in their language, their instinct that what people are experiencing today has some parallels with wartime isn’t entirely misplaced.

Of course, there is no comparison between what is happening now and the scale of bloodshed and suffering during an armed conflict. But on an individual level, the loss of life is felt just as deeply, the fear is just as acute, and the sense of dislocation and uncertainty about the future, global in scale and unprecedented in most of our lifetimes, reaches in vain for its analogue outside of war.

This is perhaps why, despite the challenges, many people are welcoming a new sense of community and connection with their neighbors. They are describing how former divisions feel less important or acute. Many—if they are fortunate enough to be spared direct encounters with the pandemic’s effects—are embracing the new perspective the virus has given us.

Nowhere is this new perspective felt more acutely than in the world of work. All the small stuff that we used to sweat over seems laughably insignificant. As businesses move from growth to survival mode, there is a new sense of solidarity and kinship. Where once there was competition, there is cooperation.

In our industry, we’re in the business of helping our clients be the best version of themselves. Our argument always goes that the best version is always the truest, most authentic one. For some, that has been hard in the past because to be authentic makes us vulnerable.

The experience of the last few weeks should make that prospect a lot less scary, because it is less unfamiliar. We’ve seen each other outside the “safe spaces” of our offices, without the armour of our work wardrobes and our “game face.” We’ve seen inside each other’s homes, we’ve heard about each other’s challenges. We’ve shared each other’s fears and anxieties.

It feels as if a boundary has been crossed. We know each other better. There is a greater sense of community, of empathy and of bonding—within families, within organisations, between companies and their clients.

There is an understandable appetite among many for “things to get back to normal,” but it’s worth remembering that there was much about what used to be “normal” that we shouldn’t be too eager to welcome back: a focus on individual success over community cohesion. a devil-may-care attitude to the future, a lack of solidarity.

Whatever kind of world, and what kind of industry, emerges after this crisis will be down to all of us. We need not look any further for inspiration than Julie Andrews and her peers, who picked themselves up and proceeded to build the longest period of growth and prosperity the world has ever seen. The most important lesson: They did it together.

Nick Bailey is the creative partner and CEO at futurefactor.

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