Comparing vaccines to weapons emphasizes the importance of acting quickly in the “war” against COVID-19. But there are other consequences of employing warfare metaphors to communicate a sense of urgency.
We often employ metaphors to help explain complex, unfamiliar phenomena. Metaphors allow us to compare something unknown and abstract to something familiar and concrete. Metaphors are pervasive and can underscore our basic understanding of concepts — that is, we understand and explain our experiences by conceiving of one thing in terms of another.
For example, we understand and experience time as if it were a finite resource: time is money, we do not want to waste time, and we are always trying to save time.
Medicine is frequently understood and experienced in terms of war. Health-care professionals tend to be the main protagonists regarding medicine as war and medical technologies are viewed as weapons in the fight against disease and illness.
We know that military or warfare metaphors can compel action — they make the need to act very salient — and yet these metaphors can have unintended consequences.
In my research, I have found that prescription drug advertisements frequently portray illness as an enemy. Personification of an unknown illness through the attribution of sinister, human characteristics may help us cope by providing a reason for our suffering.
We talk about vaccines and vaccine passports as powerful weapons in the war against COVID-19. These messages prompt us to personify the virus and to conceive of it as an enemy who is threatening our well-being.
The science of COVID-19 is still emerging, making it difficult for anyone to fully understand the virus. Viewing it as our enemy makes the abstract concrete and provides a reason for senseless deaths.
When politicians talk about waging war against COVID-19, they are communicating the importance of doing everything in our power to defeat the virus. When we hear the statement “the war against COVID,” we know we aren’t literally engaging in warfare with a virus. But we tap into our understanding of what it means to be at war against an enemy, and we transfer that knowledge to the situation we are facing with COVID-19.
Warfare metaphors are useful at compelling people to act — they draw on our understanding of needing to do everything we can to defeat an enemy threat. Our understanding of warfare, however, does not end at taking action. It also includes the understanding that there are winners and losers in war.
We’ve been exposed to conflicting messages surrounding our choice of weapon to battle COVID-19. The best vaccine is the first vaccine you are offered, we’ve been told repeatedly by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and countless others, but wait if you can because the actual best vaccine might be the one with the fewest side effects, according to the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI). Or don’t get the AstraZeneca vaccine at all, says Ontario’s chief medical officer of health.
We are being told to simultaneously move swiftly and to make thoughtful, reasoned choices. These messages are bound to confuse and frustrate.
Overly nervous about side-effects
Complicating these conflicting messages is the risk of over-estimatating the likelihood of rare side effects of prescription drugs. NACI is recommending we make thoughtful, rational choices about which vaccine to get by weighing the risks and benefits, and yet research has shown that many of us have difficulty assessing the likelihood that a rare side effect will actually occur.
People frequently rely on their feelings when making risk-benefit judgments. The so-called affect heuristic has been found to occur across a wide range of situations, meaning we overestimate risks and underestimate benefits when experiencing negative emotions. In addition, Canadians report feeling greater levels of stress since the onset of the pandemic. Together, these make rational risk-benefit judgments increasingly difficult.
Depicting the virus as an enemy force presents people with a vivid, negative image of an otherwise abstract concept.
While employing warfare metaphors spurs people to action, it also creates expectations that we’ll triumph over the enemy virus. What if we don’t eradicate COVID-19, but are faced with the situation of living with the virus for many years to come? Will we have lost the war?
Politicians and public health officials should be mindful of the metaphors in their messages as they are fundamental to how we perceive the world around us — and can profoundly confuse us when it comes to vaccination.