April 23, 2021, by Brigitte Nerlich

How the pandemic is shaping worldviews

This is a guest post by Ahmed Abdel-Raheem. Ahmed is a postdoc in linguistics at the University of Bremen, Germany, and former Assistant Professor at the Department of English Studies at Maria Curie-Skłodowska University in Lublin, Poland. He is the author of Pictorial Framing in Moral Politics: A Corpus-Based Experimental Study (Routledge, 2019).


It is very likely that readers of this blog have read at least one article about how war metaphors are used when talking about the science and management of the Covid-19 pandemic. Here we have a mapping from a familiar societal source domain, war, to an unfamiliar medical or scientific target domain, the coronavirus. What is perhaps less well-known is that the coronavirus and the pandemic, which have now become quite familiar to us, can also be used a as a science/medical source domain to talk about emerging societal target domains.

This type of mapping has been explored for some time, although less so than the reverse mapping. In the heat of despair over the American war in Vietnam, Susan Sontag, a breast cancer patient and one of America’s intellectual icons, described the white race as “the cancer of human history.” As Sontag wrote in her 1978 book, Illness as Metaphor, illness metaphors are never neutral constructs. In Sontag’s words, “the modern disease metaphors are all cheap shots. The people who have the real disease are also hardly helped by hearing their disease’s name constantly being dropped as the epitome of evil.”

This brings us to a question that this blog post wants to ask: How are the coronavirus and the pandemic used to talk about society? How is the Covid-19 pandemic shaping world-views? Almost all researchers and commentators seem to be more interested in how we are thinking about Covid-19 and not in how the virus is changing how we see the world.

The pandemic as a lens through which to see the world

My corpus-based study of political cartoons for the journal Discourse & Society (32/5) looks at how the Covid-19 pandemic itself has become a metaphor. I established a corpus of 504 political cartoons, out of which 179 used the coronavirus and associated phenomena as source domains. The results show that a great many phenomena (including Israel, Donald Trump, the Arab world, racism, poverty, corruption, rumours, ignorance, mass shootings in the US, schools, hypocrisy, love, Arabic drama, Halloween, Christmas, terrorism, Turkey, conflict in the Middle East, etc.) have been represented through the lens of the pandemic, the virus, but also, more recently, its potential cure, namely vaccines. To give only a few very recent examples:

Shortly after the mass shooting at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis on Friday 16th of April, Brazilian cartoonist Carlos Latuff tweeted a cartoon that shows a syringe (symbolising a vaccine) labeled “gun control” and a blood-soaked gun bearing the letters “NRA” (which stands for the National Rifle Association). The word “Cure” also floats in the air above the syringe, and the word “Disease” above the smoking gun. The cartoon is captioned: “The country [i.e. the US] has been plagued by two diseases: the coronavirus and the gun. In both cases, there’s a vaccine.” The cartoon’s message is that gun control, the vaccine, will end gun violence, the disease.

Similarly, on 15 April 2021 Filipino artist Zach posted a picture split into two horizontal panels on Twitter: the upper half of the picture features a crying coronavirus particle and a syringe in a vial reading ‘vaccines’, while the lower half shows a crying crocodile and a pen reading “Election 2022.” The cartoon is titled “There’s a vaccine against corruption and incompetency, too. PLEASE REGISTER AND VOTE!” The pictorial simile not just helps Filipino readers understand the political, social, and cultural impact of corruption on their nation, but also urges them to vote in the 2022 presidential elections.

On Monday, 12th of April, the last before Ramadan, Jordanian cartoonist Emad Hajjaj caricatured a mosque as a padlock, with the minaret as a syringe, substituting a vial for the large gun of the iftar cannon (which sounds when the sun sets, signifying the end of the fast). The cartoon, which you can see as the featured image of this post, also shows four mask-shaped Ramadan lanterns. The caption reads: “Ramadan Kareem.” The cartoon shows that Muslims, like billions of others around the world, have the pandemic on their minds, something which casts a shadow over their religious festival.

At the moment, the world has virus variants on its mind and this too translates into cartoons. Consider an image by Jordanian cartoonist Emad Hajjaj originally posted on Facebook on 14 January 2021. The cartoon features two red-toothed bats wearing explosive vests, holding daggers, with parts of their wings transformed into parts of guns and bombs, and haloed by coronavirus particles. The bat on the right side of the image is nearly-black navy blue, with white eyes and pinna, and bears a fluttering black-and-white Isis flag, with the white banner at the top of the flag reading “Variant 1” and the white circle in the middle of it represented by a coronavirus particle. The bat on the left is black-and-brown, with yellow eyes and pinna, and raises a yellow flag with the words “Variant 2” emblazoned across the top in black in a somewhat coarse, handwritten Arabic script and a coronavirus particle with three gun-shaped spike proteins in the middle. The caption reads, “Militant groups are like coronavirus”, with the hashtag # Iraq. In Arab culture, terrorism is conventionally associated with creatures active at night, bats (a symbol of evil). However, the information that the novel virus almost certainly originated in bats also plays a role in the selection of the metaphor.

The high frequency of coronavirus metaphors in my data (179 out of 504) clearly indicates that the pandemic crisis has triggered, or facilitated, the choice of the illness (and cure) metaphor, thus changing how we think about the world.

Illness metaphors between cancer and corona

The coronavirus metaphor, like the cancer metaphor, can be described as “crass.” It oversimplifies complex stories and is characterised by a tone of sanctimonious self-righteousness. But there is a large difference between coronavirus and cancer metaphors, as the diseases have quite different causes and prevention and treatment are different. While the use of cancer metaphors to represent societal ills is not remarkable anymore, the use of pandemic metaphors to represent societal ills is very new and emerging, just like the disease.

Which societal issues are captured by this metaphor when and where needs to be monitored and studied in order to understand how we live, think and act in a changing world. We also have to keep an eye on how actual victims of the virus, be it those falling ill, or those having to cope with the death from the virus of friends or family, might think of the widespread use of the pandemic as a lens to look at society and politics. To repeat what Susan Sontag said: “the modern disease metaphors are all cheap shots. The people who have the real disease are also hardly helped by hearing their disease’s name constantly being dropped as the epitome of evil.” This also needs investigating.

Image by Jordanian cartoonist Emad Hajjaj (with permission)

Posted in images and visualisationsinfectious diseasesMetaphors