With the constant research that goes into writing my “MASKS”-themed trilogy, I recently read an article in Scientific American titled, “Military Metaphors Distort the Reality of Covid-19.” It was written by Adina Wise, M.D., and neurology resident of Mount Sinai Beth Israel Hospital in New York City.
And although this was one of many profound analyses by healthcare experts I’ve read that reiterates my own thoughts about the annoying warlike words banded around the pandemic conversation, Dr. Wise’s prose struck a strong chord with me. In her words: “The rhetoric of war implies a heedless approach that undermines the practice of medicine.”
She gave an example of the irrelevant militarized language droning on in speeches, commentaries, and conversations:
“Doctors and nurses are fighting on the frontlines without sufficient ammunition. They are battling the enemy. They are at war.”
But as Dr. Wise mentioned, “We, the healthcare professionals, are not at war. And we certainly have not enlisted. We are healthcare workers. What we are doing is working extraordinarily hard to keep our patients alive.”
I could not agree more. While a collective mobilization may be needed, there are no weapons and no intentional killing of fellow human beings. And, apart from the divisive verbiage claiming the coronavirus only impacts the old and immunocompromised, no institution or pandemic casts people as dehumanized “others” as much as war. Even the mistreatment of the BIPOC communities disproportionately being impacted isn’t as harsh. Militarized language is not only unnecessary, but I also find it more alarming than the virus itself since it merely perpetuates the overall problem; A society that puts profits over principle and human rights.
Just as war feeds the corporate coffers, so is our healthcare system similarly exploited. As this piece in Stanford Medicine explains, the fundamental immorality of the US healthcare system that the coronavirus has exposed is how embarrassingly high our uninsured rate is and how we’ve shifted from protecting patients and healthcare workers to seeking profit.
Something to ponder: Although scientists remain unsure of where the Spanish Flu of 1918 originated, the first known case was reported at a cramped, unsanitary US Army base in Kansas. It then sailed to Europe with the young soldiers and came back to haunt us at a port in my home city of Boston. If soldiers were the first victims of a deadly virus then, why not question if history has repeated?
Blaming China’s wet markets when America’s factory farms are as much an environment for breeding infectious diseases also seems far-fetched to me. New research by scientists at the Scripps Research Institute also suggests that industrial livestock, not wet markets, could just as easily have been the origin.
We could favor the analysis of the evolving situation in calmer scientific and medical terms. One based on social justice. We don’t need war stories and blame games to show how the human race can come together in mutual aid and solidarity to help contain a deadly global virus. How about pitching the crisis as being about communities across the globe uniting to help find a solution?
Of course, the linguistic militarization of modern medicine is nothing new. The language of biomedicine and epidemiology has always been we “battle” a virus, and our body has “defense” mechanisms against the pathogens that “invade” it.
But the coronavirus crisis is pan-human. When we continue this narrow militaristic diction, we miss the opportunity to develop a more nuanced understanding of human capabilities not restricted to national boundaries. International unity is what we need to tackle problems of global scales, such as climate change. Not militarized thinking that only enables the global powers that be to overpower humanity and the planet, destroying natural habitats and bringing us such plagues.
Now tech giants like Google and Amazon that are closely tied to the Pentagon are getting creative and supposedly coming to the rescue to supply all the information we need for testing and for many, the only way to obtain food, supplies, and books.
But, as Naomi Klein, a political analyst and social activist and also the author of The Shock Doctrine, No Logo, and No is Not Enough believes, could they be using the pandemic to increase profits while taking advantage of the power big-tech has over Washington? In her own words, “Silicon Valley is trying to show Washington they deserve financial help for projects like Artificial Intelligence (AI).
How does this relate to my concern over the militarized language being tossed at this pandemic? While AI has many beneficial tools we need to think about the use of advanced “super-intelligence” technologies in the context of militarism, such as killer robots and highly intrusive mass surveillance to “save us” from coronavirus. The US company Draganfly has developed “pandemic drones” to monitor crowds of innocent people for body temperature and incriminating sneezing or coughing. We best hope our allergies don’t act up or we look into the sun at the wrong time.
Throughout my novels, the protagonist, Caryssa, is concerned about how her career stomping grounds, Silicon Valley, is so wrapped around deceitful “defense” technologies and what that means to the futures of our children.
As Klein states, “ “It’s a future in which our every move, our every word, our every relationship is trackable, traceable and data-mineable by unprecedented collaborations between government and tech giants.”
As we all don masks in our most fashionable style to safeguard against the spread of the virus, the parallel of the theme to my novels with the pandemic is almost uncanny. There is truth hidden beneath a veneer. Let’s not let the masquerade of the military-industrial complex overshadow a more positive hope for world peace.
A quick note about the sheer irony that the main reason America is scrambling for basic medical supplies like masks and other critical PPE’s for our healthcare workers is our poor fiscal priorities spending so much on war. Rather than the “guns or butter” days, its “bombers or ventilators.”
Regardless of the virus’s point of origin, it’s clear that a radical change in direction is more urgent than ever. We need cures, not wars. The human race will come out of COVID healthier and wiser if we stop framing our understanding of its response in monotonous displays of military might.
As this BrightVibes piece states, the silver lining of fresher air globally has actually saved more lives in some places than those dying from the virus. We are presented with the opportunity to transform our economies into one for a brighter future built on sustainable practices. Let’s embrace it.