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Debunking the myth around military metaphors: Why illness isn’t a matter of Winners and Losers by Katie Heyes

The militaristic approach to depicting sickness has quickly become a cliché of modern English vernacular. It is all too common in the media, particularly during the current Covid-19 pandemic, that when discussing life-threatening illnesses, journalists tend to write something along the lines of someone who “lost” their battle with an illness or are “fighting” for their lives. American President Donald Trump has further amplified these battle comparisons by describing himself as a “wartime president”. However, what many of us don’t realise is how inaccurate and potentially detrimental this language can be. This understanding is what we took away from our interview with Viral Immunologist, Dr Zania Stamataki.

When asked about the effectiveness of combat comparisons when describing severe illnesses like Covid-19 or cancer, Dr Stamataki was quick to point out that “a patient is never fighting a disease—the immune system is”. In her opinion, the real “battle” is “humanity pitched against the virus”.

Debunking the myth around military metaphors: Why illness isn’t a matter of Winners and Losers by Katie Heyes, Artwork by Hanna Gwynn

Of course, there are good reasons people use these metaphors. War has likely become a common metaphor for a pandemic due to the sense of security and solidarity it provides to the public. These feelings are key to increasing morale when faced with such devastating illnesses. In this case, the spirit of camaraderie can be well founded. Recovering from a severe disease exhausts the body and the mind and can disrupt relationships with friends, family, and even one’s self-esteem. Thus, the image of “winning” such a mentally and physically draining battle may be appropriate for journalists wanting to highlight and embellish the immense bravery of patients.

However, whilst it’s true that the immune system is working tirelessly to fight off a dangerous pathogen, Dr Stamataki continued to explain how it is completely “wrong” and “counter-intuitive” to use expressions such as “they’ve lost the battle with Covid-19” as it is not a “fight of equal terms”. Employing terminology such as “losing the battle” with a disease can unintentionally imply that death is somehow a failure and that the virus is some sort of “winner”. A statement like this not only undermines our understanding of how unpredictable and catastrophic these diseases are, but it inadvertently glorifies them as more powerful than the patient. Frequenting these metaphors can be extremely harmful as for someone with a terminal illness it could attach feelings of guilt and responsibility to the fact that their illness cannot be treated. The scary thing is that many of us simply don’t realise what a dangerous precedent this sets as it’s ingrained in common vocabulary.

Metaphors are indeed a powerful tool as a way to visualise and understand the world’s dilemmas, but in terms of sensitivity, it would be wise for us to widen the language we use to prevent further amplifying problematic implications.