Covid-19 & the Language of War

Pippa White writes on the comforts and dangers of the language of war in our society’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. She argues that we must not let the dead be dehumanised and that the Church should offer a space for heartfelt grief and mourning.


As I thumb through my collection of newspapers from historical events, I regularly come across phrases such as ‘field hospital’, ‘the spread of false information’, and ‘the front line’. Yet these dailies are not from either World War, but from the last ten or so weeks. My undergrad was in history, and seeing what is happening around you through a historian’s eyes is a habit hard to shake. This has been especially true of the Coronavirus pandemic. One of the most curious, and one of the most worrying, cultural trends which is happening for this historian is the shift towards wartime language.

Our government, coupled with the British media, have been keenly peddling this use of language. It is quite understandable: we are suddenly having to live within the Unknown, and any way of making this feel more familiar is natural. So we highlight the parallels. We pull our unwieldy and unshaped experience into a familiar mould, one which comfortingly suggests there is an end date to all this, where we will be the victors. The incomprehensible becomes comprehensible.

But therein lies the worry. By turning coronavirus into something against which we can wage war, we turn ourselves into a people at war. This is not always a completely bad thing; it can mean a surge in community and charity which we have not seen in the public eye for a long time. But there is that Leviathan who lurks beneath all of this, the one who always comes with war. The deaths of loved ones, people who were once a baby in someone’s arm, are turned into ‘the infected’ or ‘the dead’. Statistics of casualties. I am no angel in this. In the early days I briefly looked up from my Instagram feed to see the BBC’s graphs of the worldwide dead. The moment where I said, ‘Well at least we’re not like Italy’, I allowed myself to dehumanise every dead person who was counted on that telly screen.

A natural reaction, perhaps? Would the grief be too overwhelming if we were to recognise every person as someone who had to die alone? Or, and this is what I fear, do we dress up a wolf into another wolf’s clothing? We take the pain and confusion, and push it into colour-coded scatter graphs which show no emotion at all. We gather up a devastating amount of emotions, and present them with no heartbreak allowed. We strive for a ‘world-beating’ tracing system, determined that our deaths will not be the highest total.

As Christians, we must not be swept along with this. We must shout from our roofs, from our social media, and from our prayers that God’s creation is sacred. God knows and loves us: from when we were woven in the depths of the earth to our last breath. These people are not to be forgotten, or to have linguistic games played with them. They had cherished memories – times when they laughed or cried (or both). They had probably given someone a terrible gift in their lifetime. They were people. As Christians, and as a Church, we need to recognise that in their passing they leave this life for no-one to ever replace them.

To recognise this is to stare grief in the face. We can not do this alone – we need each other and God. I do not suggest that this will be easy, or that anything which is happening now will become more understandable. In our mourning we will create the chance to sound out that knot in our stomachs which has been forming in the last three months. We will find how deeply this wound has cut our society. We will ask God, ‘Why?’. We can only do this if we allow ourselves the space to mourn.

The Church needs to give society the space to mourn this pandemic in the way that only we can: that to hold grief and anger and trust and love and respect together does not stop any one of these being fully felt. We hold onto each other and God, as we refuse to let those who have died become a statistic in a history book. And as we look to our God, seeing that human form on the crucifix, we know that this pandemic is not the end. We mourn – for those three awful days, we weep. But we do this in the knowledge that God will lead us to resurrection, and growing in grace and wisdom we will create a resurrected society.

Pippa White

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