Commentary by Janpeter Schilling (University of Koblenz-Landau): Why war rhetoric in the time of the coronavirus pandemic is not only wrong, but dangerous
A “bazooka” is what the German Federal Minister of Finance, Olaf Scholz, recently called an aid package to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus. In the same press conference he later mentioned “small arms”, which would also be ready to fight the virus. For the otherwise rather unemotional Scholz, this is an unusual choice of words. Early on in the corona crisis, French President Emmanuel Macron stated “We are at war“. Donald Trump, the self-appointed US “Wartime President” even speaks of “our big war“. Why are important politicians using such a martial vocabulary in their responses to the corona pandemic? And is this okay?
The deliberate parallels to wartime create attention and underline the degree of threat posed by the coronavirus. Moreover, a common enemy has a unifying effect and it can strengthen social cohesion and voluntary compliance with rules. The message that should reach the population and the markets is that “we have recognized the seriousness of the situation and are now doing everything we can to avert the threat”. That is fine.
However, using war rhetoric during the corona crisis is not only false, but also dangerous. The virus is, biologically speaking, dependent on suitable host cells and therefore designed to spread, but it is not a conflict actor who has the motivation to harm us. Moreover, a virus does not pursue a goal, at least if one trusts science and not the numerous conspiracy theories currently circulating on the internet. Small arms cannot defeat the virus. A bazooka does not cure people.
This martial rhetoric is dangerous because it leads to a securitization of the virus. Securitization means that a process or a group of people is portrayed as a key threat to national security which needs to be dealt with by security forces (e.g. the military) and means of violence (e.g. weapons). A securitization of climate change, for example, has been strongly criticized because it suggests that the military is the right actor to respond to climate change. Of course, just like in the case of climate change where the military can play a positive role for example by securing dikes, the military can set up mobile hospitals in the corona crisis. Nevertheless, there is a danger that the securitization of the coronavirus will be used to justify extraordinary measures and severe restrictions on civil liberties. In extreme cases, the implementation of restrictions on mobility and police brutality can cause more deaths than the coronavirus itself. This can already be seen in Nairobi. Especially poor people, such as street vendors, often have no alternative sources of income.
Moreover, in parts of the world, not only is the virus becoming securitized, but people suspected of being infected with the virus are also becoming securitized. In Greece, for example, entire refugee camps are being quarantined and the people living there are being categorized as a general threat, instead of being evacuated early on and treated if necessary.
To be clear: According to the latest science, the applied restrictions on mobility in Germany and large parts of the world seem to be effective in slowing down the spread of the coronavirus. However, the restrictions must be regularly reviewed and explained to citizens without violating human rights and resorting to war rhetoric. Verbal “disarmament” would also prevent additional fears being stirred up in the population, in already uncertain times.
We are not at war. We are in a crisis – from which we will also emerge, without a tank, without a bazooka.
A similar version of the comment was originally published in German on the blog of the Peace Academy Rhineland-Palatinate.