international analysis and commentary

COVID-19 at war: between metaphor and reality


France’s President Emmanuel Macron used the word “war” eight times in his March 16th televised announcement of measures to fight the coronavirus pandemic. He amplified this trope by comparing health service personnel to the soldiers of World War I, reprising Georges Clemenceau’s exact words of 1918: “Ils ont des droits sur nous.”

The temptation may be strong to view this as metaphorical language, to be put on the same plane as Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty” or Jimmy Carter’s statement that energy policy was the “moral equivalent of war”. After all, bullets are not flying and armies are not maneuvering against each other. But the mobilizing potential of war as a clarion call makes its metaphorical use irresistible to leaders. But that form of instrumentalization has narrow limits: public opinion sooner rather than later views the metaphor for what it is, and will eventually treat it as politics as usual, leading to cynicism.

The lockdown emptied the streets of New York City


However, it would be a mistake to dismiss war on the coronavirus as a pure metaphor. Unlike Johnson’s poverty plan or Carter’s energy policy, and unlike the challenges of the inanimate world such as earthquakes, a virus is neither a concept nor a thing. It is very much alive, with an ability to adapt to changing circumstances buttressed by a strong survival instinct.

That obviously does not mean it has intelligence capable of formulating changes in strategy. Its adaptations proceed by the genetic agency of Darwinian selection. But survival-of-the-fittest is strategic in nature: when circumstances change, genetic mutations will be triggered to alter the virus’s strategy. The parallel here is that of the marketplace, in which economic agents adapt as a function of the invisible hand: economic war is often used as a metaphor, but it is not always only that.

The marketplace, like a viral ecosystem, is not a thinking being capable of devising strategies, yet any company knows that the market possesses a will of its own, and as a corporation you may end up dead rather quickly if you do not recognize that will and respond strategically to it. This is indeed one of the big challenges we also have in dealing with Covid-19 : we are still at pains at understanding its will. We do not know whether it mutates readily or not: We only know that it mutated in order to progress through inter-human transmission probably some time last year in the vicinity of Wuhan. We also do not know yet whether it will be seasonal; or whether it will prompt a strong and lasting immune response. In war-language terms, it still has the strategic initiative.

In other words, we are interacting with Covid, much as would be the case between two opposing armies or in a fight between jihadis and counter-terrorist forces. As I write, one can already describe some of the terms of the strategic debate: Do we ride this one through like we had to do with the Spanish flu of 1918-19, culling the herd so that we eventually build up so-called herd (aka group)immunity, as has been suggested by Prime Ministers Boris Johnson and Mark Rutte, accepting the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands on the battlefield?* Or do we attempt to hold back the enemy through quarantines and so-called social distancing in the hope of holding out until the cavalry of vaccines and cures arrives? When we choose, as most of our countries do, the latter strategy, the tempo of war with its campaigns and operations falls into place: the authorities activate command posts (aka as crisis centers), the French hospital system is put on a war footing (le plan blanc), choices are made between mass mobilization measures (cordoning off the entire Schengen area) and flexible response (closing schools but not banks), and for the duration (to use an English wartime expression) our businesses become part of a command economy. As in war, different plans are made at the operative level. Some working, such as early, systematic testing; or early and brutal measures to slow the virus’s spread. Some fail such as over-selective testing; under ambitious and belated holding operations.

Unsurprisingly, the tools used in advance planning as in the current crisis management are those initially devised to deal with warlike contingencies: the well-known British crisis-management center COBRA (Cabinet Office Building Room A) was first set up to deal with the Irish Republican Army. Its French equivalent, CIC (Centre interministériel de Crise), was created in 2009 as a consequence of a proposal made in aWhite Paper on Terrorism in 2005 with its implementation being mandated in our National Security and Defence White Paper in 2008. Planning and exercising for a possible interhuman bird-flu pandemic in 2004-2006 was an integral part of that process, which demonstrates that even at the concept phase, mass terrorism and health crises were seen as belonging to the same conceptual universe. I was intimately involved in this process and can thus ensure that this is not an ex post facto rationalization of what we are witnessing semantically and practically today.

I would like to end these remarks by saluting the bravery and fortitude of the Italian people and authorities who have been fighting the hardest of battles in this unusual war. They deserve more help and solidarity from the European Union than they have received.

That unhappy reality will have political consequences, as well as a geostrategic impact. China, as the incubator of this unnecessary crisis but also as the first country to have successfully limited its domestic consequences, is clearly eager to ward of accusations concerning its original role in the pandemic, while seeking to harness it as part of its narrative as an alternative to a supposedly decadent West. In this sense as well, the word war is not only metaphorical.



*”(1) Covid -19’s threshold for achieving herd immunity is between 60 and 70% of the total population. With a mortality rate of 0.7% of the infected population, this implies some 250 000 fatalities in a country of 60 million inhabitants  (60 M × 60%=36 M x 0.7%=circa 250 000 fatalities)”.