March 17, 2020, by Brigitte Nerlich

Metaphors in the time of coronavirus

On Sunday, 15th March, Kenan Malik wrote an article on metaphors for The Observer. This was inspired by Matthew Cobb’s new book on The Idea of the Brain which delves into the many metaphors of and for the brain that have been used over time. I have just started to read that book – a good way of distracting myself from the ever-present thought of the novel coronavirus or Covid-19!

In his article, which all students of metaphor should read, Malik also mentions the virus: “The coronavirus is both a physical threat and a metaphor for everything from the failures of globalisation to the menace of foreigners.”

For a while now I have been toying with the idea of writing something on metaphors in the time of coronavirus, but instead I have been sitting on Twitter staring at Covid-tweets like a rabbit caught in the headlights. Anyway, Malik’s article and some tweets relating to it, woke me from my digital slumber.

Before I display my random collection of metaphors caught on the fly, a quick overview of metaphors and metaphor analysis.

And, of course, the situation is complex, fast changing and fluid, so this is just a snap-shot!

(I have tried to update the following list over time, but this is, of course, a vain effort, given the stream of metaphors that is emerging all over the world. There is now a project that one can call ‘crowd-sourcing’ metaphors, to which you, readers, can contribute here.)

Metaphors and meaning

Why look at metaphors in the time of coronavirus? Metaphors create meaning. They have been tools for meaning-making as long as humans have been able to talk to each other. They are essential for the development of language, cognition and culture. They also play an important role in how we think and talk about health, illness and medicine and they shape how we act, individually and collectively.

The impact of metaphors in particular and social representations in general on thinking, talking and acting in the context of emerging infectious diseases, has been studied systematically by social scientists and communication scholars from Susan Sontag’s work on cancer and tuberculosis (1978) and AIDS (1989) onwards, starting with Ebola in the 1990s (Ungar, 1998; Joffe, 2002), followed by BSE or mad cow disease (Washer, 2006), foot and mouth disease (Nerlich et al., 2002; Nerlich, 2004), SARS (Washer, 2004; Wallis and Nerlich, 2005), avian/bird flu/influenza (Nerlich and Halliday, 2007; Ungar, 2008; Brown et al., 2009), swine flu (Nerlich and Koteyko, 2012), MRSA (Washer and Joffe, 2006; Koteyko et al., 2007), Zika (Ribeiro et al., 2018) and many more…..

Peter Washer published a book on emerging infectious diseases and society in 2010. There is even a special issue on pandemics published by Sociology of Health and Illness in 2012 and edited by Robert Dingwall, Lily Hoffman and Karen Staniland. And, of course, there are brilliant history books, including a recent one by Frank Snowdon entitled Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present.

So, what about metaphors and Covid-19? Obviously, there are war metaphors, the go-to metaphors used in almost all reporting on infectious diseases, epidemics and pandemics, but, I thought, that cannot be all. So, I started rummaging around quite unsystematically, I have to confess, and here is what I found.

I would however like to invite you, dear reader, to let me know about any other metaphors, and there must be thousands, that I have overlooked.

War metaphors

War metaphors (fight, battle, combat, attack, defend etc.) came out in force when the outbreak of Covid-19 started in China. Somebody will have to study how war changed from metaphor to daily reality, just as it is happening now in Italy, France (and here is a counter-argument), Spain and beyond. (The same goes for ‘the apocalypse‘…)

Here is only one example of the war metaphor: “President Xi Jinping has vowed to wage a ‘people’s war’ against the COVID-19 epidemic. Judging by the draconian measures that have been introduced to quarantine tens of millions of people, restrict the return to work after the Chinese New Year, and shutter much of the Chinese economy, he was certainly not understating his determination.” There are thousands more…

War metaphors also marched into the UK discourse, once the government announced its action or battle plan. Here again somebody should study the rise and fall and change of war metaphors quite systematically. One headline in The Sun brought many aspects of the war metaphor together when it declared: “Army on standby as Boris declares war on coronavirus with battle plan to kill the deadly virus”. [Added: They are now even more conspicuous in this strange document from Downing Street – which would deserve a separate analysis!]

Some people opposed the war metaphor. Simon Jenkins wrote in The Guardian: “Never, ever, should a government use war as a metaphor in a time of peace. Britain is not at war with coronavirus. The phrase and its cognates should be banned. Those who exploit them to heighten panic and win obedience to authority should be dismissed from public office.” Similarly Simon Tisdall asks people to ‘lay off the war metaphors’, while using them himself quite liberally (HT @VeronikaKoller). (And here is another strong argument against the war metaphor in an article by Yasmin Serhan for The Atlantic. And here is another article by Marina Hyde, after the Queen’s speech that used no prominent war metaphors)

Some people argued quite convincingly that we are ‘at war’ and that the war metaphor is quite appropriate. See this video which is extremely clear about what’s at stake. Thony Thorne, a linguist, also pointed in this direction at the end of April, when quoted in an article in The Financial Times)

Some took it further and explained why we are at war by looking at issues of science and politics: “A war is always a political choice. It is a last resort for many but in recent times some ‘wars’ have been perceived by many to also be of choice. The policy to combat a virus […] needs to be guided by science but is ultimately a political decision. Unlike traditional wars, we do not have a choice: COVID19 is here and we need to fight it. It is a different foe. It knows no borders.” So we enter the politics of war… a dangerous field.

There is now also something else creeping in, namely a policy of ‘surrender‘ here in the UK, where NHS workers are not tested….This is highly dangerous.

(More on war metaphors in this blog post by Milena Podolsak. And one could look at Twitter where many are arguing against the war metapor – and as time passes, it’s now middle of April the arguments get stronger, good article by Talia Lavin; see also this article by Bec Sanderson and Dora Meade in The Ecologist from beginning of May, and this article Giulia Carbonaro from the middle of May which sums up the situation at that time)

Dunkirk, little boats and testing

It’s now 2 April 2020 and I just woke up and heard Sir Paul Nurse, Director of the Crick in London explain what his institute and many other smaller institutions like his have been doing about testing, a thorny topic at this moment. He pointedly used the metaphor Dunkirk, but he did not focus on the war imagery. He said that the Crick and others are like little boats, more agile, faster etc. than the big boat or ship of Public Health England which is supposed to coordinate testing centrally. See here, at 1.09. Regarding testing, puzzle metaphors (Boris wants scientists to ‘unlock the puzzle’) are creeping, see here.

Invisible enemy

It’s now the end of April and I have heard the phrase ‘invisible enemy‘ yet again from the mouth of President Donald Trump. Jack Shafer in Politico has provided some great insights into the purpose of that rhetoric, as it emerged over time and has now become quite entrenched.

I’ll come back to different ways of framing disease management, with metaphors other than war, in a moment, after a little detour into disaster metaphors and very few explanatory metaphors.

Invisible mugger

In his first speech since his recovery from Covid-19, on 28 April, Boris Johnson portrayed the virus as an assailant, an unexpected mugger that has to be wrestled to the floor….Here is a short Guardian article about that. Here is a good commentary from the Gogglebox, reframing the mugger as “like a mugger skipping down the street doing a little dance number a little twirl [and saying] ‘I am going to mug you’!”

Disaster metaphors

Alongside war metaphors, which frame what we are doing in a pandemic, there are, of course, also a lot of disaster metaphors, which picture what the epidemic does to us, such as

  • epicentre (here are some reflections on the pros and cons, by Carl Zimmer)
  • London is a coronavirus nuclear reactor and has to be cut off
  • meltdown
  • and also Chernobyl – China’s Chernobyl, Trump’s Chernobyl etc.
  • plague (killer plague) – that would deserve its own analysis
  • floods and tides (suggested by @GarethEnticott, as that’s how disease is referred to in Margaret Atwood’s trilogy (2nd book even called the flood)
  • tsunami (of cases)
  • storm – seems especially in the US
  • the perfect storm – here is an article on why this is the wrong metaphor
  • wildfire
  • embers
  • house on fire

This last metaphor was nicely exploited in a recent article by the epidemiologist William Hanage reacting to the UK government’s plans to manage the pandemic. He said: “Your house is on fire, and the people whom you have trusted with your care are not trying to put it out. Even though they knew it was coming, and could see what happened to the neighbours as they were overwhelmed with terrifying speed, the UK government has inexplicably chosen to encourage the flames, in the misguided notion that somehow they will be able to control them.”

This has changed just now while I am writing, as social distancing is now strongly encouraged in the third press conference. But there are still some changes needed, such as more systematic testing, as recommended by the WHO….

Metaphors to explain the virus and its spread

Strangely, explanatory metaphors were quite rare. By this I mean metaphors trying to explain or make visceral the nature of the virus and the way the virus operates. But perhaps I am wrong. If there are other examples, please let me know.

The evil trickster

Some scientists regard this coronavirus as a really cunning beast, to use a metaphor. Rupert Beale wrote on 6 March: “The [corona]viruses therefore need some clever tricks to survive. I remember being fascinated by the RNA ‘pseudoknot’ and ‘slippery sequence’, which allow the viral genome to be read in two different ways simultaneously”. A thread on Twitter by Peter Kolchinski was metaphorically more explicit and starts like this “While not technically alive, there’s an evil genius to viruses that never ceases to amaze me. It’s one reason I became a virologist. A recent Nature paper reveal a remarkable trick SARS-Cov-2 learned that makes it nastier than the first SARS”.

The domino effect

A really great example of what the virus does and how it spreads was this mixed metaphor where New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo tried to explain the dynamics of virus transmission by saying: “It’s these large gatherings where you can expose a number of people in a very short period of time and then it’s like dominoes, right, then the tree continues to expand with branches.” (The Guardian, 9 March 2020, p. 7, also here)

Why was this metaphor not used more widely when people discussed cancelling or not cancelling large gatherings of people?!

Now, on 23 March, it is on an amazing cover of The New Yorker!

A bullet train

On 25 March, now that New York has ‘exploded’ with cases, Cuomo has introduced another metaphor, that of the bullet train: “Mr Cuomo continued: ‘The [infection] forecaster said to me, ‘We were looking at a freight train coming across the country.’ ”We’re now looking at a bullet train.””

New land or unwelcome visitor

I added this on 23 March after a tweet from @VeronkiaKoller who wrote: “The Danish PM and Queen talk about #coronavirus as a new land or a dangerous visitor, resp. (Remember cancer as an unwanted lodger, @elenasemino?) By contrast, the UK government is resorting to the predictable war metaphors”.

Spike protein as weapon

And Pernille Bogø @Pernajl sent me a first ‘real’ explanatory metaphor on 24 March: a science article explaining how the ‘spike’ protein that is so central to the ‘corona’ virus works as a ‘weapon’ to ‘commandeer’ the cells – there is also talk of invasion I think, but I’ll have to run the article through Google translate first… There are many more appearing now which need to be monitored, such as “like a pirate ship lashing itself to a helpless merchantman”, also regarding the spike protein….

Asymptomatic spread as a fire cracker with an invisible fuse

“If there is one thing about the novel coronavirus that you must understand, it’s that it is a firecracker with a long fuse. Here is what the explosion looks like: Every six days, the number of people infected by the disease doubles, according to estimates from Bedford and other epidemiologists. […] An invisible fuse sets off this burst of disease. If someone is infected with the coronavirus on Monday, she may start being contagious and infecting other people by Wednesday.”

There are also metaphors around genetic and epidemiological ‘detectives‘ emerging…

Metaphors of where the virus spreads

The petri dish

Jenni Metcalfe has alerted me to the emergence and spread of the metaphor which seems to have taken hold especially in Australia, but I have also seen it used elsewhere (a more systematic search would be good…), namely that of the ‘petri dish’. You have probably all heard of cruise ships being petri dishes for the virus. Here you find a lot more!

Two things are interesting. Most of us mortals have probably never held a petri dish in our hands, but we still seem to understand that metaphor. The other thing is how it can be interpreted by some, in this case the Australian PM, who, upon hearing a reporter use it said, I kid you not: “SCOTT MORRISON: I think it’s very important, Andrew, that media don’t use that sort of alarmist language. I don’t think it helps. I would encourage more modest language on these sorts of issues … – Sky News, 24 March, 2020”. Now, why would he regard this metaphor as ‘alarmist’, a word so commonly used when climate scientists are rebuked for speaking out about another threat facing the world? I leave that with you readers.

Metaphors to explain what to do about the virus

The following has become a rather unsystematic list, as I wrote the post on 16 March and have added to it ever since. One should really match the metaphors to the policies that were enacted over time and in various countries. One should also distinguish between metaphors used to sell policies and metaphors used to criticise policies…

Added 7 July, 2020 (HT Paul Manners): One policy was to stop containment in early March and start ‘mitigation’, which involved as Phil Whitaker said in the New Statesman, the ‘hosepipe policy‘. This is a fantastic metaphor, about which you can read here. It made it difficult to achieve the aspiration of ‘flattening the curve’, a metaphor I noted as being salient around the same time.

Flattening the curve

The ‘flattening the curve’ metaphor (see my blog post here) has become big and has many variations, off-shoots and cousins, such as this

  • take the heat out transmission
  • breaking chains of infection – or better “BREAK THE CHAIN
  • controlled burn
  • starving the virus of fuel
  • slow it in its tracks and push it back (Leo Varadkar)
  • while Boris Johnson said on 19 March: send the coronavirus packing
  • and: remove the invisibility cloak from the invisible virus through testing
  • and: turn the tide
  • also: keeping the lid on (Prof Harries)

There are also more creative versions of the flattening the curve metaphor.

Squash the sombrero

Referring to the hat-shaped curve of the now famous flatting-the-curve graph, Boris Johnson introduced the metaphor of ‘squash this sombrero’ at the second press conference about the virus which actually used a representation of the flatten the curve graph in the background in order to make it more understandable.

The announcements made at the press conference has provoked a lot of unease and criticism though, one of them being that the scientific models on which the political decisions were based were not made public. In an article in The Guardian one can therefore read “There is clearly no consensus on how to respond to the pandemic even among the scientific community. Prof Neil Gershenfeld of Massachusetts Institute of Technology put it best when he said that ‘building models is very different from proclaiming truths’. All anyone wants to know is how our particular model was built, and then we can all squash the sombrero together.” Again, this now seems to be happening.

The subway car

“[Drew]HARRIS [population health expert at Thomas Jefferson University]: The red curve is showing us that we are seeing a significant number of cases in a very short period of time. If you think of the – our health care system as a subway car – and it’s rush hour, and everybody wants to get on the car once, so they start piling up at the door. They pile up on the platform. There’s just not enough room in the car to take care of everybody, to accommodate everybody. That’s the first curve, if you will. That’s the system that is overwhelmed. It just can’t handle it, and people wind up not getting services that they need. If we, instead, spread out those cases so that everybody on that subway car doesn’t show up at the same time but, instead, shows up at different times, then that car can accommodate the right number of people but over a longer period of time. So the whole idea is to flatten that curve, make sure that not everybody shows up at an emergency department door at the same time.

CHANG: OK. But to take your metaphor of the subway one step further, you’re assuming with this flatter curve that people will still need to get on the subway. In other words, you’re assuming that we’re not going to see a quick end to the spread of the coronavirus, that people will still continue to get infected.”

Skate not to where the puck is but to where the puck is going to be

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, often seen standing beside President Trump, urges people to, in a way, be always ahead of the curve, which means going where the infection is going to be, as well as where it is.

“FAUCI: It’s the old metaphor that – the Wayne Gretzky approach. You know, you skate not to where the puck is but to where the puck is going to be. If we don’t do very serious mitigation now, what’s going to happen is that we’re going to be weeks behind, and the horse is going to be out of the barn.”

The issue here is how to ‘control’ the spread of the virus – proactively. Governments want to be seen to take control and bring the virus under control. Government actions can help in this. However, in the US the government was slow in ‘blunting the pandemic’, all the while pretending it was in control. Here is an example and there are many more.

“America’s top infectious diseases expert [Fauci] is warning that hundreds of thousands of Americans could die unless every citizen joins an effort to blunt the coronavirus pandemic — only to be contradicted by President Donald Trump, who insists the virus is under ‘tremendous’ control.”

What is more important than talking about ‘control’ is talking about collaborative and collective efforts to manage the disease. @elenaseminohas just alerted me to this metaphor used in Italy by a virologist:

Football metaphor

Virologist @RobertoBurioni on Italian RAI 2, Sunday evening, used football metaphors for need of ongoing collective effort against Covid-19: ‘Just one person can let the whole 11-strong team down’, and ‘If you manage to go from losing 3-0 to 3-3, that’s not the moment to relax’.” [added after initial publication of this post]

The hammer and the dance

This refers to strong action to suppress the rise in infections followed by a sort of dance with the virus to keep it under control….The article in which the metaphor appeared was published in March, but has now spread quite widely (now meaning mid April), as documented in this blog post by Susan Lee Nacey.

Curve metaphors

Here is a wonderful example of the visual and performative use of the flattening the curve metaphor: Frena la curva!! Slow down the curve! And here is another one by @marcosbalfagon, Illustrator for El País on pulling down the curve together!

Lockdown and confinement – metaphors of crime and punishment

Flattening the curve or making it go away depend on two measures: social distancing or, better, physical distancing and, in the future, treatment and vaccination. To talk about distancing languages in Europe have used metaphors of imprisonment, such as lockdown, confinement, barriers and so on. More on this see here, by PIRC, under crime metaphors in a wonderful article on metaphors. See also my blog post about the role of music (and poems) during this crisis and during lockdown.

Fire and tide

A nice article in The Guardian by Nick Chater explores the different policy implications of the fire and tide metaphor of outbreak management! @elenasemino mentioned this Italian fire metaphor here: “non soldati, ma pompieri” ‘Not soldiers but firefighters‘. Even if we’re not fighting the fire directly, we all need to look after the land to avoid further disasters.

Playing whack-a-mole

On 6 March Morgan Lyons wrote in Metro that “Whack-a-mole is a lousy crisis strategy”. On 14 April Ed Yong pointed out that in The Atlantic “the only viable endgame is to play whack-a-mole with the coronavirus, suppressing it until a vaccine can be produced”….

So far, we have looked at some metaphors for the virus, the spread of the virus and the control of the virus. There are also metaphors who take the virus and turn it into a metaphor. Instead of mapping familiar knowledge, for example of a volcanic eruption, onto an unfamiliar phenomenon, such as a new virus, the now familiar (new) virus is mapped onto intractable societal problems, for example.


(Added 7 July) I have now written a whole post about that…

The virus as metaphor

As quoted at the beginning of the post, Kenan Malik used the virus as a metaphor and said: “The coronavirus is both a physical threat and a metaphor for everything from the failures of globalisation to the menace of foreigners.” How have others used the virus?

Covid as one more wall

“Covid is the disease of stoppage, of ‘social distancing’, of ‘self-isolating’ (all these new terms that will no doubt find their way in the Oxford Dictionary very soon), of no-handshakes-no-hugs, no flights, no passing through. It’s the perfect metaphor for our time, where sovereign walls are being erected, armies are being called upon to defend whole continents against the oncoming humanity, officials visit spaces of unspeakable violence and congratulate the efforts of the defender, and neo-colonising attitudes reinforcing the moral predominance of the origin are springing up everywhere across the globe. We all have this disease, even if our bodies try to resist its full development. We are victims of our complying complicity. Covid is simply spreading itself on top of our acquiescing bodies, a thin layer of sanitiser and fear.”

Stress test for the species

The coronavirus is a stress test for the species. It’s a dry run for the disasters to come. Well, a moist run. It’s a test of our capacity to cope with planet-scale disasters, and this time we are probably going to pass. Just about. Not with flying colors, especially given how long it took us to close the airports, and not without a lot of grief, stress, and loss—but civilization is not about to collapse this year.

As a metaphor for the damages of climate change

“If you imagine reducing the planet to the size of a large balloon, a thin layer of paint on the surface would represent the entire biosphere. It may be wrapped around the entire planet, but it is fragile indeed. This thin, coronal layer of plants, trees, and atmosphere, is everything that gives us life. And it’s currently infected by an overreach of “flesh-eating bacteria” — namely humans that are over-consuming their resources. Climate change is the fever, but the underlying disease is the unbridled consumption of Nature.”

This brings us to a rather strange metaphor, where both the virus and climate change are ‘gray rhinos’.

Gray rhino

“Forget black swans. We’re getting run over by two gray rhinos: coronavirus and climate change. The intrigue: A gray rhino is a metaphor coined by risk expert Michele Wucker to describe ‘highly obvious, highly probable, but still neglected’ dangers, as opposed to unforeseeable or highly improbable risks — the kind in the black swan metaphor.”

More reflection on (the dangers of) the virus as metaphor can be fund here in an article by for The New Yorker. (And more reflections on this by Ian Burdon (@Cosmic_Serf) in his blog post on metaphors here).


We knew it was coming and we still were not prepared, medically, scientifically, and culturally, despite all the dystopian pandemic literature that have been circulating for ages [added: new article in The Conversation about this here!] and all the real epidemics and pandemics that have happened in recent times. To use an old metaphor. The virus exploited that weakness in the global body politic. As Laurie Penny said in a Wired article: “Infections don’t just attack weaknesses in the human body. They also exploit weaknesses in human society.” And:

“A bug or a virus will exploit any weakness in the body politic. Cholera became a huge problem when human beings started moving to cities in huge numbers. It stayed a problem until we worked out new ways of building large-scale public sewage systems, which involved a lot of money and manpower. Because of diseases like cholera, we literally figured out how to handle our shit.”

Let’s see whether the Covid-19 outbreak makes us figure out how to handle living together in an interconnected global world threatened by climate change.

Image: by Sumanley xulx from Pixabay

PS there are now also visual metaphors emerging, such as crinolines for social distancing, Abbey Road and Edward Hopper paintings – as well as bat with mask on, and there must be much more, around masks etc. Also a mash-up between Star Wars and the Downing Street ‘communication’, by @ojmason and @rennarda (based on seeing random uppercase words), empty shelves and an ambulance driver with a shopping basket!!!

Somebody should keep an eye on cultural differences in metaphor use, comparing various speeches by political leaders in this respect, for example Macron, focussing on ‘la guerre’, Trump now also shifting to ‘war’, Downing Street invoking war imagery similar to the Trump administration, but others not so much such as leaders in Germany, Ireland, Denmark, Canada and the NetherlandsIndia . And now, also The Queen (5 April), and also, the President of Germany which, Adam Spencer rightly says on twitter, ‘smashes the Queen right out of the park’!

There are now some interesting comparative studies emerging, one draft of an article interesting blog, by Sylvia Jaworska and Richard Hadley, respectively.

Somebody should also keep an eye on emerging symbols and alternative forms of communication, as putting green or red pieces of paper in your window indicating you are fine or you need assistance. Most importantly, we see many many rainbows, drawn mostly by children, pinned to windows, celebrating the NHS.

And the use and challenging of clichés: Richard Osman said: “People still congregating in busy spaces saying ‘it’s the Dunkirk sprit’, need to understand that in this scenario they’re actually being the Luftwaffe.”

The harm that clichés can do, such as ‘stiff upper lip’, ‘keep calm and carry on’, see this article in the New England Journal of Medicine: “Throughout the past few weeks, the U.K. mantra has been ‘we will act at the appropriate time according to the science.’ Many clinicians and scientists have been pushing the panic button, but the alarm, if heard, was not acted on publicly until the third week of March.”

Other languages! Follow #reframeCovid also here – this has now a website

















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