Beyond the battle, far from the frontline: a call for alternative ways of talking about Covid-19

Green shoots coming up through the ground

Two Lancaster University linguistics experts have launched an appeal for examples of inspirational non-war-related metaphors which encourage people to stick to the rules while enabling them to have hope.

Dr Veronika Koller and Professor Elena Semino are seeking alternatives to the war metaphors heard on a daily basis.

Since the beginning of the global Covid-19 crisis, politicians and commentators have resorted to war metaphors to describe the virus, its impact and measures taken in response.

However, as linguists who have worked in healthcare communication, Professor Semino and Dr Koller are also aware that metaphors are ways of seeing one thing in terms of another, and that no single metaphor can capture the full complexity of a condition, let alone a global pandemic.

“Some aspects of hostile language such as ‘the fight against the coronavirus’ help to communicate how serious the situation is, and can foster a spirit of solidarity in the face of an external threat,” said Professor Semino.

“But some features of the war metaphor may actually have adverse effects in that they lead to anxiety or indeed aggression towards people who may be seen as guilty of causing or spreading the virus.

“We know from the literature on public health communication that war metaphors are ill-equipped to make people abstain from their usual behaviours.

“This is particularly relevant in the Covid-19 crisis, where whole populations are required to passively stay at home.”

Dr Koller explained: “For all these reasons, we have become interested in alternatives to the war metaphors we hear on a daily basis.

“We are particularly interested in the aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic that are relevant to ordinary people.”

So what metaphors are used to communicate what is expected of them and how they can expect the crisis to develop?

· A virologist from Italy, Roberto Burioni, likened the containment of the virus to a football game in which one side was down 0-3 and has equalised to 3-3, but has not yet avoided defeat, never mind won the game.

· A similar idea was expressed by a journalist from Germany, Alexander Kekulé, who compared the spread of the virus to a tanker that doesn’t stop the minute the engine is switched off.

· And most recently, Stephen Powis, the national medical director of the NHS in England, talked about ‘green shoots’ to tell the country that the self-isolation measures were showing some first effects.

“What these three metaphors – football game, tanker and green shoots – have in common is that they express cautious optimism and instil some hope, while also making it clear that people still have to comply with the containment measures,” added Dr Koller.

Under the #ReframeCovid hashtag, linguists from different countries are collecting and discussing various alternatives on Twitter and commonalities across languages are already being seen.

For example, the virus and the number of infections it causes are often talked about as a natural disaster, be that a tsunami, wave or storm.

The sense of an impending disaster was also expressed by New York governor Andrew Cuomo, who quotes a forecaster saying that the public health crisis used to be a freight train coming towards them but is now a bullet train.

And what about explaining the pandemic to children?

· An Italian psychotherapist, Alberto Pellai, has suggested that children should be told that there is a large army of adults fighting a tiny, invisible enemy – a metaphor that may not be as reassuring as intended.

· A UK commentator, Neil Crowther, has drawn from a children’s film to suggest that public messaging could “cast us all as a potential ‘Queen Elsa’ from Disney’s Frozen, unaware of our newly acquired power to cause harm by touching things and each other”.

“Research suggests that different metaphors suit different purposes, circumstances and audiences,” added Professor Semino.

“Relying on a single metaphor, therefore, is not advisable, especially for something as critical as a global pandemic.

“This is a time where sensitivity and creativity are required to develop a range of metaphors that can appeal to the widest possible variety of people and circumstances.”

Anyone wanting to contribute to the collection is invited to use the #ReframeCovid hashtag on Twitter. Posts using the hashtag are regularly checked and will be incorporated into the international effort.

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