Relying on tired metaphors to understand an unprecedented crisis is just setting us up for greater suffering.
Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/HuffPost; Photos: Getty

Pie-Pacifique Kabalira-Uwase, a 39-year-old business-development consultant, survived the Rwandan genocide in 1994. He hid under a bed to avoid stray bullets and paid smugglers to get fresh vegetables. Now under COVID-19 lockdown in Pretoria, South Africa’s capital, he told me he sometimes feels “triggered.” But not because the experience of quarantine actually reminds him of war. He gets triggered when people use the word “war” to describe the pandemic.

It feels so “incorrect,” he told me. “Comparing this to war ― you can only do it if you have not lived through war. War has a specific sound and a smell. The smell of war is gunpowder and blood.”

These comparisons are everywhere now; they’re fast becoming the dominant way we understand the coronavirus. On March 16, President Emmanuel Macron of France described the struggle against COVID-19 as a “war” four times in a single speech. A day later, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson anointed himself the head of a “wartime government.” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo uses the analogy liberally, sometimes to spur U.S. President Donald Trump to action (“Act like it’s a war!”); last Sunday, standing beside Trump, the U.S. surgeon general declared COVID-19 “our Pearl Harbor.”

I first heard the comparison between the coronavirus and war from a friend in Seattle. Infections had just begun to climb, and she worried intensely about what food and supplies to stockpile. Her grandparents had survived the Holocaust. She acknowledged that, on the face of it, a toilet paper shortage bore no resemblance to it. But the emotions reminded her of that period in history: the sudden fear of crowds and who might be in them; the eerily empty look of once-bustling city promenades; the hour-by-hour calculations as to whether you should stay or flee.

During the coronavirus pandemic, it feels as if we’ve settled deeply into the “war” comparison, as if it were the semantic home we had been eyeing for a long time and finally felt we’re earning the currency ― in suffering ― to fully afford. I wondered, though, what people who had lived through armed conflict thought when they heard these comparisons. So I asked four men I knew who endured, or whose immediate family members endured, wars: Pie-Pacifique, who lived through the Rwandan genocide; Nuruddin Farah, who writes about the long-running civil war in his native Somalia; Bashar, whose grandparents are enduring the civil war in Syria; and Prince Decker, who escaped Sierra Leone’s devastating civil war in the 1990s and now lives in Maryland.

I had expected them to find the comparison offensive. During the war in Sierra Leone, for example, Prince Decker’s mother was killed when armed soldiers burst into her hospital and ripped the oxygen tubes out of the patients’ noses. But, to my surprise, they objected most strongly for a different reason. They thought the comparison was just “wrong” ― dangerously wrong. In ways beyond what most of us can understand, a pandemic is nothing like a war. They worried that, through misrepresenting to ourselves the unprecedented event we are facing, we are setting ourselves up for even greater suffering.

Piles of clothes belonging to victims who sought refuge inside a church, as a memorial to the hundreds of thousands who were killed during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
Piles of clothes belonging to victims who sought refuge inside a church, as a memorial to the hundreds of thousands who were killed during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

A Completely Different Psychological Horror

“You didn’t know when it was going to start,” Pie-Pacifique, now 39, told me over Zoom from his suburban house. In Rwanda in 1994, one of the first things to vanish was the hope of acquiring any good information. Pie-Pacifique remembers “listening to a main radio station” in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, “on the day it was bombed.” The hosts had been calculating the capabilities of the rebel leader. “Then there was a commotion. The presenters were calling out: ‘Are you alright? What happened?’ A few minutes later, the signal was lost.”

In this pandemic, we are deluged with information. Some of it competes, but it’s there. We talk now of being “a week behind Italy” or “days behind New York.” We expect real-time data from our leaders and can decide between which of many epidemiologists’ projections we want to trust. But after that day in Kigali, that radio station never came back on air. There was also no internet in Rwanda in 1994, but if there had been, Pie-Pacifique told me wryly, there would have been “no Netflix or FaceTime, because the chances are the people who manage the internet companies would also be hiding. The enemy will strike those people first, because destroying essential infrastructure is a main tactic in war.”

Bashar, a 30-year-old illustrator living in Athens, asked that I only use his first name since his grandparents still live in Aleppo, Syria, where intense fighting is ongoing. In Athens, he is struck that “hospitals are becoming sacred places where doctors are widely appreciated for their work.” In Syria, though, “the doctors specifically have targets on their back. Destroying hospitals is a war strategy.”

In Athens, he can also take precautions to protect himself: washing his hands, wearing a mask. He worries about his grandparents, who shrug off the threat of COVID-19. Years of war taught have them that it isn’t worth making extreme exertions to diminish risk. “War is a completely different kind of psychological horror,” Bashar said. “Just the idea that you could be blown to pieces at any second.”

“The thing is, a pandemic is completely different from a human adversary. It’s not intimidated by bombast. Pandemic response rewards the opposite ― caution.”

Pie-Pacifique was 13 during the Rwandan genocide. On some days, things seemed weirdly normal. He played with his cousin outside. Others were apocalyptic, like the day a stray bullet came through the walls of a family friend’s house and killed her teenage daughter while she slept in her bed. It hammered home the reality that the difference between the living and the dead was “pure chance.”

The most advance warning that Pie-Pacifique would get that his life was in danger was a few seconds. One army was set up on Mount Jali, behind Kigali, and he and his cousin would watch for flares of light against its trees ― that meant rounds had been fired. Pie-Pacifique’s family realized they had to flee Kigali only when they saw a motorcade of government soldiers hurrying out of the city. Relieved to glimpse some authority figure, Pie-Pacifique and a neighbor rushed out of their houses and tapped on the window of the commander’s car. “Captain!” Pie-Pacifique’s neighbor shouted. “Should we evacuate or not?”

The commander answered, “It’s up to you.”

“I remember his face,” Pie-Pacifique told me. “It was so dejected. And then he rolled his window up. And I realized there was no plan. There was not even any way to make a plan. There was no critical information, not even any way to know who was actually winning.” Even some of his neighbors became enemies, unrecognizable to him. “Some of our neighbors started taking other people to a public place and executing them. You couldn’t reason with those people. Once they had a taste of blood, it became something they celebrated.”

Fifteen years after the civil war in Prince Decker’s native Sierra Leone ended, the country endured a devastating epidemic of the Ebola virus. Everything was frantic and confused, and more than 11,000 people died in the country and in neighboring Gambia and Liberia. But “we never called it a ‘war,’” Prince told me. “We called it ‘the virus.’ Because that’s what it was. It was a disease.”

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks as the Navy hospital ship Comfort arrives in Manhattan to help relieve the strain on area hospitals.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks as the Navy hospital ship Comfort arrives in Manhattan to help relieve the strain on area hospitals.
Ron Adar / Echoes Wire/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

The False Comfort Of Bluster

One of the points of reaching for this analogy is to deflect attention from epic missteps. We should not be experiencing widespread shortages of critical supplies or a total lack of coherent strategy from the U.S. government, as if coronavirus were an ambush, a “Pearl Harbor,” which it wasn’t. “Hindsight is a luxury none of us have in the heat of battle,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said Wednesday, to excuse his administration’s multiple failures to heed expert warnings and shut down schools and businesses. Nuruddin Farah, a writer from Somalia, lamented that “the only reason nurses and doctors are described as ‘warriors’ right now is because some politicians have failed in providing these doctors and nurses with the equipment that they need.”

But what about ordinary people who reach for the “war” analogy? I told Nuruddin that some friends of mine also sounded relieved to use it. One friend in Seattle told me that he finally felt he could connect to his grandfather’s experience during World War II. He had always suspected that, by comparison, he had led too frivolous and privileged a life; that he’d never been tested, never been forced to be truly courageous or heroic.

It’s revealing that, in seeking to compare this pandemic to war, we reach so often for World War II. That’s a war many people fetishize. Think of the “Keep Calm and Carry On” posters millennials printed to soothe their anxiety long before the coronavirus appeared on the scene or the numerous biographies, self-help books and podcasts that extol British Prime Minister Winston Churchill as the model for how to live even a peacetime life.

“A virus is much more predictable than a human enemy, but that means that all our choices, small and large, feel so much more burdensome.”

Boris Johnson wrote one of those books, which may be why he adopted the most ostentatiously Blitz-era leadership style of any world leader. In March, he went to the front line to shake hands with the pandemic’s soldiers ― health care workers and infected patients ― “manfully,” as the U.K.’s Daily Mail admiringly put it. The Churchillian leadership model insists you inspire your own citizens by showing them you’re not afraid of the enemy, nor even of death.

The thing is, a pandemic is completely different from a human adversary. It’s not intimidated by bombast. War can reward shows of strength, even unwarranted bravado, because of the psychological effect they can have on your opponent and your supporters. Pandemic response rewards the opposite ― caution. “Carrying on as normal,” in fact, feeds a virus.

To demonstrate his leadership, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa released a hapless video of himself locked alone in a kitchen struggling with the Zoom meeting app. Johnson’s behavior looked a lot more badass ― until it landed him in intensive care with coronavirus, unable to sit up, and his country predicted to experience the most COVID-19 deaths of any nation in Europe.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., Americans lionize Gov. Cuomo for being “big and tough,” a “vision of old-school clout,” and like “Churchill” who raised “his right hand to jab a finger at [us and shouted that we] DESERVE VICTORY!” A Twitter user droolingly speculated that Cuomo’s “apparent nipple rings are crossed cavalry sabers, reflecting his war against coronavirus.” But at least two-thirds of what people are admiring here is bluster ― quieter, wonkier governors like Washington’s Jay Inslee have arguably done a better job. In a misguided diagnosis of an enemy that obeys mathematics, not psychology, it was only a few weeks ago that Cuomo was counseling just as bombastically against “panic.”

We imagine that, despite its depredations, World War II brought out the best in citizens and politicians and yielded us a better, more stable world than we had ever had. That’s only really true, though, in misty-eyed movies and History Channel documentaries. My grandfather was traumatized by his service in the Pacific theater, during which he confessed that he witnessed a group of his own fellow soldiers boiling the heads of dead Japanese soldiers in cauldrons on a beach to extract the gold fillings.

We fantasize that our current “war” could bring out a life-affirming change in us. I see friends now post on social media about the upsides of the pandemic: the beautiful meals they have time to cook, the sweet conversations with their little ones. I don’t doubt their emotions, but it also feels forced ― this wish, so soon, to be changed by this disaster in very specific ways.

I first met Prince Decker at a Washington, D.C., church where I used to work as a singer. Among the choir members, Prince was a legend. His good cheer was so unquenchable it was almost bizarre. The church was notorious for its nasty internal politics, but Prince endured as a clergyman there because nothing seemed to faze him. He loved golf, and in between the church’s two Sunday services, he used to practice putting between the tombstones in the cemetery.

It seemed a bit sacrilegious but also inspiring. Prince had seen dead bodies in the street. After that, everything else in life was to be enjoyed, every opportunity one to be seized. Headstones make a good putting course. The dead might have liked to know they provided a service to the living, he reckoned, had they been among the lucky ones.

Recently, Prince told me he’d received chemotherapy for aggressive prostate cancer. The nurse had warned him that the treatment was going to be “extremely unpleasant.” He had laughed. He knew “extremely unpleasant” from Sierra Leone, and he knew little else could touch it. He excitedly marveled at how lucky he was to get a couple of hours to sit for the treatment in such a nice lounge chair. But that attitude was hard-won, arrived at many years later.

(AP Photo/Brian Inganga)

An Uncharted Ocean of Data

Pie-Pacifique stressed how different the sensory experience of the coronavirus was from the war he experienced. “In war, fear has a different taste,” he said ― the taste of adrenaline. He was careful to note that health care workers and the severely ill could be experiencing something more akin to being in the trenches. But as a civilian in lockdown in a suburban house, “when I wake up in the morning now and look out my window, I can see the traffic is not there. There’s silence, yes. But during the day, I put on nice clothes and have meetings. We say we have ‘ghost towns’ now. But a ghost town, in war, is different. A ghost town is not only when you can’t see the other people. A ghost town is when nobody is there at all.”

Nuruddin felt that the world’s use of war metaphors revealed a “poverty of the imagination” about the varieties of pain. A pandemic has its own “texture,” as he called it. One of this pandemic’s special features is the requirement it imposes for the near-instantaneous production of data combined with the painful fact that we are human and our capacity to gather and analyze information is inherently limited. A virus is much more predictable than a human enemy, but that means that all our choices, small and large, feel so much more burdensome.

I once heard scientific knowledge compared to the shore of a continent. The more of it you map, the more aware you become that an uncharted ocean and vast other continents lie out there beyond your understanding. Pandemic is like that: face masks were in, then out, and now they’ve become the subject of an ever-more data-rich debate that is probably irresolvable. We thought pets were surely not carriers of coronavirus, and then a tiger tested positive at the Bronx Zoo. Day by day, we get less of a grasp on the coronavirus’s symptoms, mortality rates and mechanisms of contagion as data flows in from dramatically different communities.

If we avoided the war metaphor, we might learn how to make decisions in this contemporary environment. Pandemic resembles many other modern problems, such as climate change: hyper-local in some of its effects, confoundingly global in others.

COVID-19 is clarifying just how urgent it is to solve troubles we talk about endlessly but avoid actually fixing. We keep talking about “after this ends”—but it’s not going to “end” in the way World War Two concluded with Hitler dead in a bunker. Contrary to the stark disruption of war, coronavirus pandemic has thrust us into more extreme versions of the lives we were already living: deeply unequal, information-drenched, anxious about distant threats, over-connected to strangers, lonely. It is a chance to consider just how firmly we’re already enmeshed in these conditions and to decide which of them we truly cannot bear.

Likening the coronavirus to war lets us skip these lessons. It slots it into a familiar, even comforting paradigm. We may not have ended the phenomenon of war. But we know that at least human beings, as a species, have survived a lot of them.

War, though, has a “jurisdiction,” Prince told me. When fighting broke out in Sierra Leone, he told me frankly, “I ran away from it.” He fled to Gambia, “which did not have a war. You might want to leave this pandemic, but you can’t.”

“We’ve never experienced a mass disaster in universal isolation before. There is no precedent for it.”

Prince also felt reassured that, during Sierra Leone’s war, he always knew in his heart that he was on the right side as he understood it. Now he constantly wonders: “Which army am I in?” The army of the healthy? Or the army of the soon-to-be-sick, or the army of the asymptomatic, silently spreading infection to his loved ones?

He observed, in his community, what felt like a tremendous venting of moralism and righteous rage. Some people were berating others on Facebook for taking a walk on the beach. Others were lambasting their friends for supporting hardcore lockdowns and thereby overlooking the plight of the poor who can’t stay home. It all felt like a mass lashing out at others for was really an inner guilt. A profound uncertainty about what individual actions are right or wrong (masks? going to the hospital when you feel sick?). This, too, shares more with other modern problems, like global inequality, than it does with war: with the bewildering questions of whether, when we send aid to a foreign country, we are helping or contributing to dependency, or whether, when we buy a pair of pants at Gap, we are supporting slave labor or keeping someone in a job.

Until recently, Prince was visiting his congregants occasionally at home and in the hospital. The visits reminded him of the unexpected physical intimacies he created with the people who survived alongside him. A Sierra Leonean man has a duty to bury his mother. But Prince was in Gambia when his mother died.

He found out because a friend in a Gambian refugee camp had a United Nations radio. The man radioed a Red Cross worker he knew in Sierra Leone, who paid for and attended the funeral in Prince’s stead. These days, you can’t just show up at somebody’s funeral. And what Prince actually remembered best about the episode was huddling over that U.N. radio, his breath commingling with the breath of his new friend ― and the intense comfort he felt through that physical proximity.

Funeral rites have changed radically following the outbreak of coronavirus.
Funeral rites have changed radically following the outbreak of coronavirus.

Mass Disaster In Mass Isolation

We keep hearing advice to “connect,” to hold our friends and families tight right now and love them harder. The renowned sex therapist Esther Perel, whose parents met immediately after surviving the Holocaust, recently told a couple whom she counseled over Zoom that “the way to withstand hopelessness and fear is through the deep connection with the people you have around you. That was what people did” during World War II. For her parents, “it probably was the most powerful curative salve, to stay connected to the people they loved, and therefore to find a reason … to keep going.”

But “connection,” back then, wasn’t the abstract word it has become during the pandemic, when a “good connection” can be a text message thread. It was a bodily thing. For Perel’s parents, she said in an interview, “the erotic [became] the antidote to death. … They [had] survived, and they were going to make the best of life,” which entailed a lot of dancing.

We’ve never experienced a mass disaster in universal isolation before. There is no precedent for it. We are trying to sustain relationships online, but this pandemic is changing childhood, and changing adulthood, too. Kids bond differently over digital platforms than they do in person. Research suggests that “the social interaction with peers during recess” is one of the strongest predictors of kids’ later academic success and that the cross-class friendships that can develop in large school settings are critical for social mobility. Adults bond differently, too. Studies show we grow more suspicious of people we can’t be around physically, even if we’re communicating with them a lot by text. In one experiment, researchers “socially isolated” mice and monkeys and found that, within weeks, changes had occurred in the animals’ prefrontal cortexes, the lobe responsible for long-term planning, among other things. We know that volunteering―giving your time to strangers―probably makes you healthier. But the effect seems particularly strong for those who volunteer in “high social contact” settings.

One huge factor in how the body fights disease is the quality of our social support, which includes touch from the people we love. Researchers who examined 2012 hospitalization data for pneumonia discovered that teenagers who had already suffered from anxiety, depression or loneliness spent 14% longer in intensive care. In another fascinating study, women subjected to mild electric shocks while holding their husband’s hand experienced almost no surge in cortisol ― the “fear” hormone ― while the subjects only able to hold the hand of a stranger experienced dramatic negative physiological changes. And an increase in “fear hormones” washing through the body for more than a day or two is associated with the onset of asthma, Type 2 diabetes, eating disorders and a plethora of other physical ailments.

Notably, the positive effect of holding her husband’s hand only kicked in if the subject described herself as happily married. Yet we now live in a world where, all in order to make people healthy, we’re forced to isolate them and pressure their marriages.

In Anne Frank’s diary, it’s striking how prominent physical intimacy is ― how consoling, even physical contact with near strangers. “I lay down on the bed,” she writes, “next to Mr. van Daan,” the man in whose basement her family was hiding. Another “connection” that buoyed her spirits was with a boy which “ended with a mutual kiss near the mouth.” The memories of another boy she had loved sustained her the most. They weren’t memories of conversations but of his body’s smell and the feel of his cheek.

Now “even my sex life is affected!” Prince told me, laughing. When he came home, he hesitated to touch his wife. But he was also serious. He thought pandemic sufferers radically underestimated the difficulties of being physically alone. What will it mean for so many of us to be sick alone? What will it mean for us to grieve our dead alone?

He felt compassion for his parishioners, who could no longer take Communion with him. Communion is literal and symbolic physical intimacy. You open your mouth and take the “body of Christ” into your mouth in the form of a wafer. The Christian faith, practiced by almost 3 billion people around the world, proposes that we cannot ultimately trust another’s goodwill toward us ― in this case, God’s ― unless we are one with his body.

Prince was trying to do a virtual Communion, but it wasn’t the same. “You know the hymn ‘Let Us Break Bread Together on Our Knees?’” he asked me. “We can’t break bread together anymore.”

You can take Communion in war, at least sometimes. You can have sex with a stranger during a war, at least potentially. We think we are preparing ourselves for the pandemic’s worst by likening it to a war. In fact, we’re preventing ourselves from acknowledging and grappling with its myriad, distinctive hardships. “Through this war metaphor, our real experience constantly loses touch with its reality,” Prince told me. We are not only cheating the victims of war by claiming their experiences as ours. We are cheating ourselves out of the truth of this new experience, and out of the potential, perhaps, to find its own distinctive consolations.

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