Which War are we Fighting? Societal Impact of Different COVID-19 Metaphors

Magda Stroinska, Grazyna Drzazga

    Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstractAcademic


    The most popular metaphor used in Western medical discourse to describe illness is that of war (Sonntag, 1978; Frank, 1997; Casarett, 2017; Semino 2021). Patients, are struggling with diseases, led, aided and armed by the health care system. Their bodies become the battleground. The aggressive nature and unknown origins of the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way we talked about this war: it was mostly the health care personnel who fought the virus while people were trying to protect themselves from infection. This changed the way roles were assigned: people, helped by government measures, focused on self-protection, while the fight became the domain of doctors and nurses. These front-line workers were like soldiers. Parallel discourses that portrayed the pandemic as fire (Semino, 2020) involved similar role assignments. While fire is a dangerous element, it lacks the mystery related to the origins of the virus. An alternative casting was offered by the COVID-19 conspiracy theories shared
    on social media, where “ordinary people” were presented as the fighters for freedom against corrupt governments and profit greedy pharmaceutical companies. In this study, we look at Poland, a country with the highest per capita rate of COVID related deaths, Canada – an example of model vaccine mandate compliance (until recently), and the Netherlands, a country with relatively high vaccination rates, but also one of the few countries which went into lockdown as a response the Omicron wave. We gathered data from official government public health websites, searching for metaphors used in popular medical discourse and relating them to societal attitudes towards the pandemic in the three countries (Panzeri et al., 2021). War metaphors simplify complex issues and assist in communicating the seriousness of the confrontation, attracting attention and encouraging others to fulfill their duty in the fight against the enemy. War metaphors may have positive or negative connotations, depending on addressee-casting and agency attached to their roles (Rohela, Pallavi et al., 2020). War metaphors for COVID‐19 used by the authorities cast people
    as a passive battleground for the fight against the disease waged by the medical profession. In our opinion, recasting people as freedom-fighters and giving them agency helps conspiracy theories gain support in situations where the official discourse gives them no active role. Even if it may seem that we talk about the same war, the enemy is different. Instead of the virus, conspiracy theorists fight against the big pharma and the government restrictions. The casting determines which side people are likely to align with. In the war against COVID-19 fought for over two years, the recent idea that we need to learn to live with the virus is similar to treason, adding fuel to the growing conspiracy theories proclaiming the virus as a hoax. Interestingly, the real war, which
    suddenly became a significant threat worldwide, may put an end to the use of the metaphorical war against the limitations of societal freedoms.

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    Original languageEnglish
    Publication statusPublished - 4-Aug-2022


    • metaphors
    • linguistics
    • cognitive linguistics


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