May 21, 2021, by Brigitte Nerlich

Walls, wars and waves: Some more thoughts on covid metaphors

The vaccination of the UK population has gone extremely well. There is still a race though between vaccinating against the covid virus and the emergence or introduction of new virus variants. However, fears of hospitals being overwhelmed by covid patients are dwindling.

While this is going on, I noticed a metaphor that I had not heard before during the pandemic, namely that of ‘a wall of vaccines’ or a ‘wall of vaccinated people’.

So I wanted to see how these two wall phrases were used in the news and who used them. I searched Nexis, the news database, for ‘wall of vaccines’ OR ‘wall of vaccinated’ and got 34 hits. That was quite a small corpus but it proved interesting.

From racoons to Ebola

The metaphor of wall of vaccines/vaccinated was first used in the news in 1995 in the Ontario Update which reported on 1 May that “The province is also going to continue a plan to create a ‘defensive wall’ of vaccinated raccoons along the Niagara River to slow the spread of raccoon rabies into Ontario.” That made me smile…

The next item is from the year 2000 and relates to AIDS, followed by Ebola in 2019, when the Agence France Press told readers on 26 July that “Doctors Without Borders has called for immediate use of the second vaccine to ‘build a wall’ of vaccinated people around the outbreak’s epicentre.”

This mixed metaphor a wall around an epicentre differs slightly from the image of the wall of vaccines used currently, which one cannot easily imagine in any location, apart from perhaps around the British Isles.

Walls, defences and leaks

Then we come to a big cluster of articles mentioning walls, prompted by a pronouncement by the Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty. However, there was one article before that using that metaphor independently. It appeared in The Irish Examiner on 20 March and said: “Only by building a wall of vaccinated people that the virus can’t get through can we offer long-term protection to people who can’t get the vaccine – those with underlying health conditions, those who are immunocompromised, those on cancer therapy.” That makes sense.

On 23 March the Yorkshire Post and quite a number of other outlets reported Chris Whitty talking cautiously about reopening society using two metaphors: “Prof Whitty […] warned there would be ‘bumps and twists on the road’, possibly including the emergence of new variants and shortages in vaccine supplies. However, the success of the vaccination rollout meant that when a new surge happens, it will be met with a ‘wall of vaccinated people’ which will significantly reduce the ratio between the number of cases and the resulting death toll.”

On 24 March The Sun phrased this slightly differently, in its own inimitable style: “CHIEF medical officer Professor Chris Whitty warned there would be ‘bumps and twists on the road ahead’ and the UK would see a third wave of Covid cases ‘at some point’. But he said the jabs blitz means the wave will be met with a ‘wall of vaccinated people’.”

Overall, we see a combination of water, war and wall metaphors, such as surges or waves hitting a wall and the wall protecting us. This image of a defence or fortification would be exploited by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

However, Whitty also points out that the wall is not quite finished yet and can be ‘leaky’. Sky News, not in our sample, reported on 30 March: “The prime minister has admitted ‘we don’t know… how strong our fortifications now are’ against a fresh COVID wave – while the chief medical officer has warned of a ‘leaky wall’ of vaccine defence.”

On 29 March The Guardian (in my Nexis sample) has the headline “Coronavirus: PM not sure how strong UK defences are against third wave” and reports Whitty as saying: ”Another wave would have a ‘significant impact’ the earlier it comes if more people are not vaccinated, Whitty warned. ‘We do have a wall of vaccines that will get stronger with second vaccines … but it is not a complete wall, it is kind of leaky wall,’ he said, urging for a ‘slow and steady unlocking, looking at data between each step’.”

Here one gets an image of a defensive wall that is still under construction, while at the same time being surrounded by buildings where doors are being unlocked!

On April 10 The Spectator calls the wall metaphor the “Chris Whitty’s analogy” and optimistically says: “any new wave will now meet a wall of vaccinated people. That wall strengthens, with almost every adult expected to be covered by autumn.”

Walls and roads

The Whitty analogy was also picked up by Boris Johnson, of course, although not attested in my Nexis sample. I have heard it quite often on TV, however, and here is one, random, example or Johnson using the metaphor from The Islington Gazette from 18 May: “He said: ‘We are looking at the epidemiology the whole time as it comes in and, at the moment, partly because we have built up such a wall of defences with the vaccination programme, I don’t see anything conclusive at the moment to say that we need to deviate from the road map.’”

Here a wall allows us, counter-intuitively, to continue following a road towards what Johnson would call ‘freedom’.

Walls in other countries

On March 26 we get a citation from Canada. In View from the Hill an expert is reported as saying: “That’s, that’s what pouring in vaccines means. What, what we’re seeing here is the variants in our country, and whereas in other countries, they’re meeting a wall of vaccinated people, the variants are meeting a tinderbox here in Canada, because the federal government has failed to procure supply.”

Here we have a mixture of water, fire and wall metaphors!

On 10 May the Daily Mirror (Sri Lanka) quotes a Chines ambassador using the wall metaphor, which of course, now becomes ‘a great wall’: “Third, its vaccine diplomacy in Sri Lanka, let ‘Sri Lanka and China build a great wall of vaccines’ explains the Chinese Ambassador in Colombo Qi Zhenhong.”


As we have seen, the wall of vaccines/vaccinated metaphor has been in use since around 1995 to talk about vaccine use in epidemics like AIDS and Ebola and now Covid-19, but came into its own after Chris Whitty used it prominently.

The wall metaphor lies at the intersection of various metaphor complexes or scenarios clustering around wars, boundaries and defences, journeys and barriers, houses, containers and, indeed, containment.

In our case, the metaphor of a wall of vaccines or vaccinated people conjures up an image of defensive rather than offensive war, of building a fortress that protects against the ‘invisible enemy’ that is the virus. The wall puts an obstacle in its way and prevent its onward journey. However, the wall is built at a time when the virus is marshalling its own army of variants and might not be ready in time to hold it back or might not hold. But all efforts are going into building that wall.

The wall is also a sea-defence, not just a fortress. It is supposed to protect people against the next surge or wave of the virus. Here again, we have to be careful that it doesn’t breach the wall or swap over it. The wall can also protect us against the virus conceptualised as a fire. And it can also be ‘great’, a ‘great wall’.

The thing is that this wall is a wall we can all build together, if we get vaccinated.

Overall then, this metaphor is quite a good one, both in terms of the varied imagery it conjures up and the actions it might prompt.

Image by ? Mabel Amber, who will one day from Pixabay




Posted in infectious diseasesLanguageMetaphors