April 17, 2020, by Brigitte Nerlich

Our pandemic future: A metaphorical exploration

We have reached a point in the pandemic when many people are beginning to yearn for a return to normal life, beyond lockdowns, confinements or sheltering in place. Ed Yong, the renowned science writer, has written some great pieces for The Atlantic on the pandemic. The latest one is called “Our Pandemic Summer” (15 April) and explores some courses of actions open to the U.S. before a vaccine comes on-stream.

I was reading this article and noticed that, like almost everything written about this pandemic, it was full of metaphors. So, this post is a quick survey of the metaphors used in Yong’s article – a snapshot about metaphor use in times of Covid-19.

One thing that struck me is the relative lack of war metaphors. There are some, but not a lot. Many of the metaphors used are journey metaphors, something that is not surprising as we are on a very long path back towards normality. And it will be a difficult path. As an article in Science by Kai Kupferschmidt, also looking beyond the ‘end’ of the pandemic, says: “As they seek a path forward, governments around the world must triangulate the health of their citizens, the freedoms of their population, and economic constraints.”

More metaphorically, the front page of the New Scientist (11 April edition) asks: “How do we get out of lockdown?” and explores “The three potential paths out of this pandemic”….

Containers and barriers

In Yong’s article the journey metaphor dominates (for more info on the journey metaphor, see my last blog post here). Before we come to it, we have to mention two other related metaphors, that of the container and that of the barrier (and also that of the path, not used by Yong) – altogether they make up a metaphor scenario. Metaphor scenarios are mini-narratives that structure discourses about certain topics of events, in this case, how to get back to normal.

Talk about lockdown, confinement and, in German, ‘Ausgangssperre’ – or barrier to going out – are linked to the metaphor of life as a container or a house (metaphorically and really). In Yong’s article we find a few container metaphors such as ‘lockdown’ itself, as well as ‘open up’ and ‘reopening’ and more creatively: The “U.S. failed to anticipate what would happen when the coronavirus knocked on its door”. And now we are dreaming of escaping this metaphorical confinement by “lifting … sweeping restrictions”, like lifting a draw-bridge…

Our metaphorical pandemic container can also be seen as being filled with fluid, which leads to the following framing, this time of the virus itself: ”Communities could relax restrictions gradually, and see if the virus remains at a simmer or returns to a boil”.

Yong doesn’t use the container/house-related ‘exit’ metaphor, which is used quite frequently in the phrase ‘exit strategy’ in other articles dealing with thinking beyond the pandemic. An example can be found in the Science article mentioned above where it is mixed with another metaphor: “But what is the exit strategy? ‘We’ve managed to get to the life raft,’ says epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (HSPH). ‘But I’m really unclear how we will get to the shore.’” The container metaphor leads to the now ubiquitous journey metaphor….

Journeys and movements

The journey metaphor is used extensively in Yong’s article. Most of all the virus itself is seen as being on a journey: It “blazed through China and reached American shore” (blaze through which nowadays means ‘go very fast’ is of course itself based on a metaphor for burning); “Viral fevers surge through American hospitals”; and “will likely surge back” once the lockdown ends.

Linked to the journey metaphor is the metaphor of speeding up or slowing down of movement: The (surging) virus was “briefly restrained” for example. And once things are better… “When sufficiently braced, states could begin lifting their sweeping restrictions”. But as the U.S. administration did not do enough, ‘ground was lost’ “due to early inaction” and “we haven’t turned the corner” and, most of all, ‘there is no road map’.

Overall, the advice from experts is: “For the marathon we’re facing, we need solidarity” and Yong ends by saying: “There is no going back. The only way out is through—past a turbulent spring, across an unusual summer, and into an unsettled year beyond.” This is not a war frame at all.

Wars and weapons

War metaphors occur but are mainly routine, as in saying that the virus “launched several simultaneous assaults” and, more importantly that hospitals are at war, are beleaguered and struggle. But mostly they are used to criticise the handling of the outbreak management by the U.S administration: “Trump is still behaving as if he’s engaged in a brief skirmish rather than a protracted siege”. People then ”thirst for a swift and decisive ‘victory’”.

This is very dangerous, because if the lockdown is handled wrongly “compliance will fall. The nation would lose its single most effective weapon against the pandemic – the willingness of its citizens to make individual sacrifices for the sake of all.” This would mean, and here we go from weapon to tool, that the U.S. “will get hammered by the same damn virus again, and be driven into more severe lockdowns”….

Machines and cars

Metaphors of machines also occur in the article, which can be linked to journey metaphors. We hear that “the nation sat largely idle”, “America finally sputtered into action”; “We don’t expect our diseases to be stuttering”; and “now that the U.S. is slowing the pandemic, gently easing back on social distancing would be safer, Morris argues, than snapping back to business as usual when small missteps could be catastrophic”.

There is also one metaphor for the lockdown which is linked to gadgets we all use: “Press a societal pause button”.

Time is money

We all know by now that the lockdown has a simple purpose; to make sure that hospitals are not overwhelmed with cases. This can be framed through the iconic metaphor of ‘Time is money’. Examples are: “To buy enough time” and “Bought itself some time”.

Now I just briefly list some other metaphors before coming to the framing of hospital care and coronavirus treatment options:

Flood: “Hospitals steel themselves for a sharp influx of patients”..,

Game and play: “Endgame”; “Play whack-a-mole”; “There is no real playbook”…

So far we have looked at metaphors which depend on mapping features from a conceptual source domain onto a target domain. So, for example we can map aspects of ‘journey’ (source domain) onto a target domain, for example ‘virus’, and say: “The virus is travelling fast”.

In the following we’ll focus instead on a few target domains, such as healthcare and treatments and see what metaphors have been used to talk about them, metaphors derived from a variety of source domains, such as stretching things, building walls or castles, watering and drying, levers and powerhouses and so on.

Hospitals and disease management

Now we come to miscellaneous metaphors used to talk about disease management and in particular hospitals. We hear about a “perilously stretched-thin health-care system” and hospitals “under relentless pressure”, and we have already talked about beleaguered hospitals, influx of patients etc. All this means that one needs to “Shore up hospitals with sufficient supplies”. Here an image emerges of pressure pushing down on and against the walls of hospitals as containers, even fortresses, which are crumbling under that pressure, unless they are ‘shored up’.

There is also a barrier metaphor at work. One idea about how to moderate the ‘exit’ from the ‘lockdown’ is framed as: “They could issue distancing orders a few days before we reach the threshold that would threaten to overwhelm our ICUs”,

What about treatments if they come along? An expert says: “It’s likely that a therapeutic would only provide incremental benefit over the backbone of supportive medical care”. Here hospital care is seen as the chief support for those who are infected with the virus.

Supply chains

Related to metaphors of hospitals and treatment (‘breaking the chain of transmission’) are of course metaphors for the things needed in hospitals (to ‘shore up their supplies’) – i.e. so-called ‘supply chains’. There is a danger though, as they are ‘drying up’ and, insofar as they are working, “These chains have been discharging their contents like a sputtering garden hose that has now begun to run dry”. Words like “depleted”, “exhausted”, “running out” and “scrambling to find” are used in this context.

Serology or antibody tests

Many people and governments are dreaming about something that’s sometimes called ‘immune passports’, which could be issued to people who have had the virus and might be immune to the disease – something that is far from certain. Yong points out that such potential antibody tests “don’t paint a clear picture”, and he quotes experts stressing that there is a danger that people may “game the system with counterfeits”. They even point out that this would be “effectively an apartheid system”, separating, what one may call clean and unclean people (my metaphor).

Thinking about the future

So, what can we hope for? We have to be realistic. Yong stresses that “the pandemic is not a hurricane or a wildfire. It is not comparable to Pearl Habor or 9/11”. This is not a time-limited event and such disaster metaphors distract from that fact.

All we can do at the moment is “dampen the threat of COVID-19” and “blunt the sting of future outbreaks”. We should also “make more informed decisions about which [policy] levers to flip”. We can only weaken the effects of the pandemic gradually, not make it go away in one go. And policy decision should be based on evidence not whim.

So we need information and thus science, something that the U.S. was good at… and, hopefully, still is: “The U.S. is still a scientific and biomedical powerhouse. To marshal that power, it needs a massive, coordinated, government-led initiative to find the cleverest ways of controlling COVID-19—a modern-day Apollo program.” However, that is difficult as, at the moment, the “administration [has…] denuded itself of scientific expertise”.

To start on the path to the future we need at least to wear some clothes!

(For more info on corona metaphors, see my previous posts here)

Image: Pixabay Coronavirus Corona Quarantine Isolation Protection



Posted in infectious diseasesLanguageMetaphors