The United Kingdom’s National Health Service has been subsumed in recent weeks by military metaphors. Health workers are “servicemen” on the “frontline” “battling” “an invisible enemy.” Political and media messages about the Covid-19 crisis are saturated with the language of wartime, and shaded by an implicit or explicit nostalgia for the Second World War “blitz spirit.” While at first celebrated for creating a sense of national unity against the multifaceted dimensions of the current crisis, the use of war metaphors has come under scrutiny and criticism. Our contribution is to link the war metaphor to a sacrificial logic that manifests through the various forms of “othering”—as positive and negative stigma—experienced by health workers during the crisis thus far.
War metaphors in public discourse, argue linguists Stephen J. Flusberg, Teenie Matlock, and Paul H. Thibodeau (2018), appeal to basic and widely shared schematic knowledge to express an urgent emotional tone that captures attention and motivates action. The war metaphor can provide a useful initial response to a crisis, but its invokers must remain wary of exaggerating similarities with actual war. We find examples of this exaggeration in the highly polarized treatment of NHS workers over the last month. On the one hand, there has been a public outpouring of support (e.g., #ClapForTheNHS and thanksamillionnhs.co.uk), with health workers cast as “heroes,” “angels,” and the “tirelessly dedicated.” On the other hand, stigma and abuse have been directed at health workers accused of being “disease spreaders.” The media feature stories of paramedics being evicted from their homes, nurses being assaulted on the streets, and NHS workers being verbally abused at supermarkets. Nurses have been instructed to hide their ID cards and disguise their uniforms on their way to and from work for fear of physical and verbal abuse.
This polarized treatment of NHS workers, as the recipients of both applause and abuse, is not so contradictory as it first appears. As the philosopher Richard Kearney (2003, 4) notes, a tendency to “othering,” to create “gods” and “monsters” out of our peers, occurs most readily in times of “terror or war.” Many of us in the UK experience the current crisis remotely through an affective landscape consisting of both a generalized anxiety, in the face of an invisible and potentially deadly “enemy” against which most of us can do nothing, and a diffused hope, in the anticipation of those on the “frontline” “defeating” the “enemy.” Hence, we are seeing attempts to find both scapegoats to blame (to assuage our fear) and heroes to lionize (to amplify our hope).
Both scapegoating and lionization have landed on NHS workers, rendering them both more, and less, than human. They are positioned as potential enemies (exacerbating the crisis by spreading the disease) and as heroes (saving us from the crisis by eliminating the disease). As Kearney (2003, 5) notes, with reference to ancient myths and contemporary terrorism, this pattern of dual “othering” is common in times of war and terror: “in our confusion, we have been known to turn the Other into a monster and a god.”
Evidence of negative stigma is obvious in the current climate: health workers have experienced verbal abuse, physical assault, eviction, and social ostracization; there has been explicit racism against Black and Minority Ethnic staff. However, even positive stigma has its cost, when considered in light of wartime expectations. As “heroes” “battling” on the “frontline,” NHS workers are also positioned as expendable, an inevitable cost of wartime: soldiers die in battle, that is the price of “waging a war.” Recent news reports have indicated that some NHS workers are being “bullied and shamed” if they refuse to work without adequate protective personal equipment, putting themselves at serious risk of contracting the virus and passing it on to their loved ones. The logic of wartime gives credulity to this shaming: NHS workers come to be measured by those expectations of bravery and sacrifice usually reserved for soldiers.
Des Fitzgerald (2020) has written evocatively of the UK government’s injunction to stay at home, which, in addition to becoming the “central logic of Britain’s response to the pandemic,” carries an “uncritical veneration of that health system and of health workers,” in a disturbingly “blurred medical and juridical authority.” This logic is supported, Fitzgerald notes, by a certain generic image of a health worker: “they are generally individual selfies, usually taken under harsh institutional light, marked by red faces, sweat, grime, distress lines, and always with that same urgent message, either appended or implied—stay home.” While such images “should be understood as expressions of grief, of fear and stress—even of solidarity and communal feeling,” they also effectively reinforce a wartime imaginary, where we are receiving dispatches from the “frontline.” These images are being mobilized to support the larger public health campaign. But in addition, this cooption of the embattled worker seems to be further confirmation of that strangely chiasmatic phrase, so often mobilized in support of the armed services: “protect them so they can protect us.” Or, as the official guidance has it, in a bizarre recasting of the hierarchy of protection: “Stay at Home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives.”
The Covid-19 crisis is a global public health emergency; it is not a war. While NHS workers are doing invaluable work, and they should be commended for this, they are also first and foremost doing a job. They are workers, with rights, deserving of protection. We should not expect them to risk their lives; nor promote this expectation through positive exceptionalism or negative stigmatization. As criticism of Covid-19 war metaphors begins to mount, we must also address the double-faced othering that it implies and call out the repercussions of the stigmas it invokes. As importantly, we should recall our own complicity with this othering process, as we look to our healthcare professionals to embody our hopes and quell our fears.
This work was supported by the Wellcome Trust [217879/Z/19/Z].
Fitzgerald, Des. 2020. “‘Stay the fuck at home.’” Somatosphere, April 13.
Flusberg, Stephen J., Teenie Matlock, and Paul H. Thibodeau. 2018. “War Metaphors in Public Discourse.” Metaphor and Symbol 33, no. 1: 1–18.
Kearney, Richard. 2003. Strangers, Gods and Monsters: Interpreting Otherness. London: Routledge.