Emmanuel Macron, who runs a country that has Bastille dreams and guillotine nightmares, declared on 17 March that France is “at war”, and repeated it six times in his 20-minute speech. Speaking from the Élysée Palace, Macron’s war started with suspending the municipal elections and announcing that “all infractions will be punished”.
Macron isn’t the only one describing the coronavirus pandemic in military language. US President Donald Trump called himself a ‘wartime president’. Prime Minister Narendra Modi likened the coronavirus crisis to Mahabharat.
Increasingly, people around the world are waking up to their cities under ‘siege’ every morning. They come to know that the ‘enemy’ is one that can touch everything and go everywhere. It is a scheming enemy that knows our every move, and strategises its moves with precise military vision. It knows our fortress will fall if we didn’t follow orders.
“This is the time of patience and discipline,” announced Prime Minister Modi on national television during his lockdown speech on 24 March.
With stunning clarity and consensus, governments and media houses across the globe are declaring the coronavirus pandemic a ‘war’. In this war, people are asked to “keep calm”, as Macron did, while everything else is mobilised, “directed and deployed”, as Chinese premier Xi Jinping announced in January, at the frontier.
It turns out, everyone loves a good war, even if there is none. Where are the combat lines: The virus? The body? The hospitals? Homes, where people are quarantined? The air that carries infectious aerosol? Where exactly are the forces deployed and the combat being visualised?
The clarity with which war is being declared doesn’t serve well when it comes to the exact measures being taken by countries. Rather, confusion is the supreme commander that directs every speech by politicians and news anchors who never get tired of using war terminology to describe a human crisis.
‘Historical battle’ against an ‘invisible enemy’
Take, for example, Trump’s 18 March address to the US. He claimed he was waging a “historical battle” against an “invisible enemy” who is doomed to fail because “we win, we win.”
But a virus is not an “enemy”. One cannot simply defeat a virus — you can only protect yourself from it and look for cures and vaccines. The much-touted “fight” only happens once the virus is inside the body. And the coronavirus has no known cure or vaccine. But war and conflict is such a part of the process of understanding our lives, that we describe the healing process of the body in war terminology, even though it is much more complicated than that.
And if it is a war, both enemies and allies need to be created. On 12 March, Trump called on his “allies” and said he was “marshalling the full power” of the US government and the private sector. While it might sound like a call made during WWII or the Gulf War, it was a plea to the private sector, which is now being coaxed to help “confront a foreign virus”.
If there has to be a war, a foreignness has to be invented. “From the beginning of time, nations and people have faced unforeseen challenges,” Trump enlightened us. In politicians’ drunk history, perhaps time begins with the foundation of their nations.
To control time and its flow has always been a concern of power. This appears most conspicuously in times of war, real or imagined.
Take for example the basic public activity of going from one place to another within the boundary of a country. Once a peacetime crisis is declared as a war, it becomes easy or even imperative for governments to suspend this democratic right and freedom that we take for granted. To take a walk or to move in the city without being questioned or monitored is something we don’t consider a ‘right’ anymore. It is part of the way we live. But it takes a pandemic to make us realise that this is an earned right. Like in colonial rule or occupation, there are barriers, checkpoints, walls and curfew. This freedom of movement was and still is highly regulated by regimes across the world.
Measures like these are taken in the name of redressal during a crisis. They can be effective, but they show how the modern nation-state is based on the idea of occupation, battle and war.
‘Lakshman rekha’ for countries
Every time a crisis happens, we are told that the ‘war-level’ efforts are being taken. War permeates the imagination and language of everyday communication. We mobilise our resources, we visualise the forces, we fight the battle, we hope to emerge victorious. Doctors are fighters. Survivors are warriors. Homes are trenches. We get our daily dose of communique via uninterrupted corporate media that has turned every emotion into spectacle and every image into weapon.
Our militarised vision of the pandemic prevents us from seeing its human cost — people dying, being rendered jobless, vulnerable to every kind of uncertainty and threat.
So, while Trump declared that “we are all in this together”, he meant only the Americans. “Well-being of America First”. His plan to “overcome adversary” is to act as “one nation, one family”. Once this is achieved, “our future remains brighter than anyone can imagine.”
Wars feed on mythologies, which is a form of strategic deployment of war narrative.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared a nationwide lockdown while resorting to mythology. He told the people of India that he doesn’t want them to cross the “Lakshman rekha”. “You must remember that you will invite grave pandemic like coronavirus to your homes if you step out,” Modi said.
Pointing to China, US and several European countries, he said that there is only “Eshah Panthaha (one path)” to save our lives and that is “we don’t cross boundaries (Lakshman rekha) of our home”.
With this repeated reference to the Ramayana, Modi also kept emphasising that this is a battle Indians are fighting. His first address to the nation, Modi compared the coronavirus crisis to a war-time situation; in his second speech, he compared it to the Mahabharata.
Danger of war
It is interesting to see how the well-being of people has been evoked and displaced at the same time to construct an image of a risk to a nation. Prime minister Modi repeatedly reminds people of the risk that family members, the children, parents, friends are facing – but only to illustrate that the real risk is to the nation. And if individuals fail to act carefully, it is the nation that will have to pay the price. One of the prices that Modi outlined is that it will push the country 21-years back. He remained largely silent on what the nation-state is concretely doing for the well-being of the people.
The speech scared people more that it assured them. One person can infect hundreds, he said, the disease is “spreading like fire”.
But what is also spreading like fire is hatred, suspicion and frenzy. A person sneezing in public was beaten up in Maharashtra. There is communal hate being spewed after the Tablighi Jamaat in Delhi’s Nizamuddin Markaz. There have racial attacks against those from the northeast.
It is not difficult to see that anywhere in the world, the language of war creates otherness, division and alienation among members of society. When countries poise themselves as nations at war to address a worldwide epidemic, hatred towards a perceived foreigner and paranoia in social life is bound to prevail. While it is important to act swiftly and effectively against the coronavirus pandemic, using war as a model to achieve it will miss the point.
What we need is an effective and accessible health care system, what we are getting is mythologised war fiction.
The author is a cinema scholar and research fellow at Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin. Views are personal.