August 19, 2022, by Brigitte Nerlich

Monkeypox and metaphors

Again and again, I have come across standard ways of metaphorically framing infectious diseases and their spread, be it foot and mouth disease, avian influenza, swine flu, SARS, Zika, Covid, and now monkeypox. War and invasion metaphors are used abundantly, but also fire, wave and flood metaphors, landscape metaphors like valleys and peaks and much more. Running through all these metaphors and dominating them all is the journey metaphor, including containers and paths that connect them in various ways. This metaphor is important at a time when movements of and between people, animals and foods are proliferating and increasingly intersecting in a world where distances and habitats are shrinking.

Conceptual metaphors like the container or the journey metaphor are ubiquitous when we talk about infectious diseases. They are rooted in how we think about space (indoor–outdoor; local–global; national–international) and flows (movement, barriers and vectors) between spaces (houses, regions and countries).

Container, house and journey metaphors

Until a few days ago, I hadn’t really paid much attention to metaphors in the context of monkeypox, which was really remiss of me, until I read an article in the Toronto Star which is based on interviews with experts on monkeypox in Africa. One of them was Yap Boum who said two things which made me sit up and pay attention.

First: “‘If you see the house of your neighbour burning, don’t close your window, go and help him; because if you don’t, it will come to you at some point,’ Boum, an epidemiologist with Epicentre, the research arm of Doctors Without Borders, told the Star from Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital. ‘We are interconnected,’ he said. ‘We should not see the disease happening in the South as a thing that will not come back to us in the West.'”

Second: “If other countries continue to neglect these viruses, Boum, said, they will eventually show up on their doorstep anyway. ‘If you don’t go in the deep forest of Congo or Central African Republic, it will just come to you.'”

The first remark exploits the conceptual metaphor of the container, in this case a house, and of fire, representing the disease, and of the journey or path that the disease can take. Monkeypox is seen as a fire burning in a house. People expect perhaps that the house, which is quite far away will ‘contain’ the fire, i.e. the disease, that it will not spread from house to house, travel to other locations, and can therefore be ignored. However, fire or disease finds a way to exploit connections between containers, where the house stands for countries or continents, and will travel from house to house and reach those ignoring it. In this case ignorance is aggravated by bias and discrimination. The house is not ‘our’ house.

The second remark homes in on one particular feature of the container/house metaphor, namely the doorstep, the place on which people or things entering a house arrive, in this case the disease which has travelled quite a long way to reach us, because we didn’t travel to the house where it lived and didn’t deal with it there.

While I was thinking about these metaphors, I came across an article about monkeypox metaphors by Kaitlin Sibbald, a metaphor analyst working at Dalhousie University in Canada. One of the metaphors she studied was that of ‘popping up on your doorstep’. She wrote: “Only now is monkeypox ‘attracting attention,’ ‘making itself known’ in ‘unexpected places’ and ceasing to be ‘mute.’ It is ‘popping up on our doorstep‘ and inviting itself into our communities. These descriptions combine into a characterization of monkeypox as something of a neglected, rebelling child.” She explains how such metaphors, for example of monkeypox as a rebelling child, may feed into “racist narratives, fuelling racist beliefs and actions”.

This, again, made me think. How could I find and analyse more monkeypox metaphors and their implications in a systematic way? I haven’t found a solution to that yet. But for the moment I want to home in on the doorstep metaphor, which looks quite fascinating, as the boundary between inside and outside through which movement can flow. So I put ‘monkeypox’ AND ‘doorstep’ into Twitter search and found quite a few people using that metaphor but in all sorts of different ways, for different purposes.

Doorstep metaphors

One tweet focuses on the core meaning of the doorstep metaphor in times of pandemics, basically on the fact that a pathogen should be prevented from reaching vulnerable people and that this needs to happen fast: “Majority of NYkers will not take this [monkeypox] seriously until it’s in their doorstep. Proceed with due diligence.” For the moment people still think of the virus as far away or, at least, as not affecting them – ‘risk is the other‘, as Hélène Joffe may say – risk is an outsider.

Another person warned people that the virus is already inside the house and wrote on Twitter “Pandemics dont go away just because people are bored with them. #CovidIsNotOver nor is the alarming spread of monkeypox. This isn’t at our doorstep, the call is already coming from inside the house. Please, stop ignoring basic preventative measuring and pick up the damn phone.” Here the house metaphor affords people with novel ways of sounding warnings to people outside the house or container, so as to avoid transmission across boundaries.

Monkeypox is, as we know, a virus that, at the moment, doesn’t go from house to house randomly, but has found a ‘niche’, a cluster of very densely interconnected houses (men having sex with men), if you like, in which it thrives, but for how long? That’s why another Tweeter remarked: “Oh and I’m not a man who has sex with other men and yet I’m pretty sure I should be [be] ready for #monkeypox to arrive at my doorstep. The homophobic rhetoric isn’t going to keep kids from bringing it home from school America.” Being prepared for the arrival of a virus includes scrutinising not only its paths and journeys but also the rhetoric used to talk about it and to bamboozle people into thinking it’s not there or not theirs.

Yet another Tweeter used ‘doorstep’ for ‘door’ metonymically and said: “When #monkeypox comes knocking at everyones doorstep, it will leave behind a trail of anxiety and depression due to facial scarring, that will be a problem that we are not able to consider at the moment.” This metonymy of ‘knocking at the doorstep’ seems to be quite common as in: “A new virus is knocking in our doorstep.” This Tweet also contained a gif of a hand knocking on a door, in a rather sinister way.

Interestingly, I also found some tweets that used the doorstep metaphor while spreading conspiracy theories, for example here: “… why are you, Fl Fauci and gates bringing monkeypox to our doorstep? Why take our guns?” And, repeating quite a common talking point: “Bill gates warns of smallpox ‘terror attacks’ 6 months ago and here we are. Monkeypox is at our doorstep the pandemic 2.0 is about to begin. The us has purchased 119 million dollars worth of monkeypox vaccines. Covid was the trial run”.

And I bet there are hundreds more examples of the doorstep metaphor used in different ways by different people, sometimes to warn, sometimes to chastise those that are careless or try to think that ‘risk is the other’, thereby stigmatising them, sometimes to spread disinformation, and much more.

The politics of (spatial) metaphors

There is a long tradition in applied metaphor analysis to scrutinise the political implications of spatial metaphors. Paul Chilton and Jonathan Charteris-Black in 1996 and 2006 respectively, stressed “the importance and pervasiveness of spatial metaphors in relation to political discourse” in the context of cold war and immigration discourses. As Charteris-Black says about Chilton: he “argues for a container schema in which ‘what is inside is close to the self, and what is outside is also outside the law’. He also refers to ‘a spatial containment schema’ which grounds conceptualisations of one’s country as a closed container that can be sealed or penetrated”. All such boundary myths and their socio-political entailments have been exploded by recent epidemics and pandemics, but they still define how we think about them.

It will certainly be worthwhile to investigate the politics of current and future monkeypox metaphors. If anybody spots a monkeypox metaphor, please send it to me or mention it in a comment!

Image: Sam Saunders Food Left On The Doorstep In The Time Of The Virus

Posted in infectious diseasesMetaphors