Covid-19: An epidemic is an epidemic. A war is a war| Analysis
They are both serious threats, but using the war metaphor is harmful because it skews our response to the crisis
The description of the battle against the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) as a “war” has graduated from an analogy to a metaphor. The war metaphor is easily accessible. Most people feel that they are familiar with wars. But the war metaphor can have negative consequences in dealing with this crisis.
Metaphors often shape our thinking about a problem — creating a social reality and guiding social action. To use professor Robert Entman’s phraseology, metaphorical framing can foreground a problem definition, causal interpretation, and moral evaluation. Certain policy recommendations then flow from this framing.
For example, in India, efforts to reduce corruption have been characterised as a “war”. The demonetisation of high-value currency notes was described as a “surgical strike” on corruption. Checks and balances on revenue authorities and other “soldiers” in this “war” have been weakened considerably. And critics of this heavy-handed approach to a subtle, complex problem are often portrayed unfairly.
Major wars and major epidemics are serious threats, but they differ from each other.
First, in the Covid-19 crisis, the overarching objective is much more ambiguous than it is in a major war. The Covid-19 crisis comes from nature. As the lockdown shows, our efforts can also create significant hardships. We need to use the information available to make decisions so that the sacrifices are less than the suffering avoided over the long-term. If you don’t like to consider such trade-offs in terms of rupees, think in terms of lives and well-being. In a major war, where sovereignty is at stake, the overall objective is usually not subject to such trade-offs, and the choices have to do with the best way to achieve it.
Second, even though certain areas may see greater disruptions, the overall outcome of a major war is the same for the entire country. But the outcomes in the Covid-19 crisis may be different across states and cities, depending on the background conditions and how each city and state responds. Further, given the differences in economies, health systems and administrative systems, suitable responses to Covid-19 may vary across cities and states.
Third, the economics of major wars is different from the economics of dealing with Covid-19. Major wars require shutting down a large part of normal economic activity to divert people, materials, productive capacities and finances towards waging the war. But the Covid-19 crisis requires finding ways to continue many normal economic activities, while reducing the risk of transmission. Although the resource requirement of the direct public health response, which includes tracing, testing, isolating, and treatment, is much lower than that for a major war, if we don’t find ways to keep large parts of the economy working, the welfare costs will be quite high. And even if we breach the fiscal rules, we have limited fiscal capacity to mitigate these costs.
Fourth, in a war, the government must lead and command, and others involved in the war effort mostly take directions. To be sure, the Covid-19 crisis has a key role for the government, but we should not assume that only the government has the answers in this crisis. Choices by individuals and families, collective action by communities, innovations by firms, and coercion by the government are all important.
Given these differences, the use of the war metaphor is harmful because it skews our response to the crisis.
One, the war metaphor allows certain political vices and cognitive biases of leaders to come into play. The tendency to over-centralise power and to avoid approaches that do not give direct control can go unchecked. The war metaphor privileges a command-and-control mode of thinking. This may be useful for some time, but as the crisis drags on, this approach will mean that our democracy’s key advantages — the ability to adapt and experiment and harness voluntary mobilisation and community action based on freely available information — may be lost.
Two, the war metaphor makes it difficult to hold the government politically accountable for its actions, not just in this crisis but also relating to pre-existing problems. In India, the war metaphor makes it difficult to criticise the government, as we are generally expected to rally around against an external enemy. But given the nature of trade-offs in this crisis, public debate and accountability are necessary. Further, India had pre-existing problems that this crisis may accentuate, but “war” framing will make it difficult to address them. The Indian economy had been slowing down for seven quarters, with two components of demand — exports and capital formation — shrinking in the latest quarter. If hereon, a single reason — the war on Covid-19 — is given for all problems, we will lose the opportunity to understand the reasons and to make amends.
To quote Bishop Joseph Butler, everything is what it is, and not another thing. An epidemic is an epidemic. A war is a war.