Invisible Enemy, Visible Humanity: Challenging our Metaphors of Pandemic

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Corona Virus
Photo by Hello I’m Nik ? on Unsplash

How are we talking about this current Covid-19 epidemic? By that I mean, not how often or with whom (since that would be a silly question–we talk about it literally every second with everyone we know), but rather in what way and using what language. What rhetorical devices are we, our politicians, and our media using to reference this disease and to talk about the infected? 

Some are using this moment to talk about the pandemic in terms of war–this is “battle” against an “invisible enemy” that we must “defeat”. I see the logic behind framing it this way. It makes sense in terms of rousing people to act in ways they wouldn’t otherwise. The image of war and battle underlines the need to take drastic action in unprecedented ways. It conjures up symbols of heroism, sacrifice, service to a greater good–comfortable symbols that everyone can easily recognize. And yet I can’t help but be frustrated by this focus on war. It obfuscates the central lessons that have emerged from this pandemic, the actual challenges that we face, and the type of person the world needs us to be.

The last pandemic that occurred on this scale and level of severity was the Spanish Flu in 1918-1920. Because it came on the tail end of an actual war (the Great War no less), I think naturally the two events intertwined in ways we are just now beginning to finally sort out. There has been a wave of interest in the Spanish Flu recently, because of the similarities with our present crisis. What is utterly fascinating to me is how little was written about it after, the most famous exception being Pale Horse, Pale Rider published in 1939 (although it may be present, but sublimated, in other famous works of the time, including T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway). Why? Is it because other events overshadowed it? Or because, as some have posited, it was so awful, and people acted so awfully during it, that no one wanted to talk about it afterwards?  Or because no one really even knew how to talk about it.

We as humans might be better at talking about things like wars and natural disasters–they are more visible and visceral. They are phenomenon that we can observe with our own eyes, and they have much clearer enemies (other countries, nature). We have a difficult time dealing with disease, which is invisible to the naked eye and understandable only from experts. So we turn to metaphors of war and violence, and sadly we create enemies out of certain groups of people and monsters out of the very people who need the most help–see HIV/AIDS, Ebola, SARS, just to name a few. And so when we have a disease that is invisible, that isolates us all and affects everyone–how will we act?

I wish we had more to guide us. I wish we had more written records and writings from and about the time of the Spanish Flu, just so we could have something more to cling to and show us how to be, or what not to be. We seem to be a bit lost and unprepared for this. Most of us have never faced a pandemic this serious before. Most of us have never had to stay completely isolated at home for so long. And I think many of us may be uncomfortable with having to place the common good so far before our own needs and desires as individuals. There is quite a lot of fear in this great unknown.

In Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag writes, “My point is that illness is not a metaphor, and that the most truthful way of regarding illness…is one most purified of, most resistant to metaphoric thinking.” I think we need to look at this crisis clearly in order to understand it and understand ourselves and our roles. Pandemics are not wars. There are no shock and awe battles. There are no bombs and foreign enemies (all the world is suffering together). There are doctors trying to help patients, there are scientists trying to discover methods of treatment and containment and there is us, doing the best we can to help others while making sure we are not spreading the infection. 

If there is an enemy in this crisis, it is perhaps our own human instincts–to go out, to play, to forget–and our tendency to blame and scapegoat. Instead, emphasize responsibility towards others, human decency and consideration–these could be a part of the new lexicon that sees us through. And they are values that Nazobako has always tried to impart and to cultivate. Another possibility: the Japanese word “ganbaru“. Often translated as “Fight!”, the two characters that make up the word actually stand for “stubbornness” and “lengthen”, a combination that conjures a sort of determined, persistent, and maybe even foolish perseverance. 

In this pandemic, we persist and we strive–to create, to solve, to be better individuals and better neighbors, and to love. I would say that is what makes us human on any given day. But especially now, we need to see who we are and how we need to act as clearly as possible, absent of metaphors. Maybe that will give us the chance to leave some sort of guidebook behind, and to be role models for the future generations that face similar circumstances. 

Stay safe, stay home, stay strong, and stay connected.

With love,

Lee and the team at Nazobako/Invite Japan

For more on the developing Covid-19 situation in Tokyo you can check out this website provided by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government:

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