Covid-19: An epidemic is an epidemic. A war is a war | Analysis – analysis
The description of the battle against 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 to face 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, the metaphorical framing can bring to the fore the definition of a problem, the causal interpretation, and the moral evaluation. Certain policy recommendations emerge from this framework.
For example, in India, efforts to reduce corruption have been characterized as a “war”. The demonetization of the high-value banknotes was described as a “surgical attack” on corruption. The checks and balances of the tax authorities and other “soldiers” in this “war” have weakened considerably. And critics of this heavy-handed approach to a subtle and complex problem are often unfairly portrayed.
Great wars and great epidemics are serious threats, but they differ from each other.
First, in the Covid-19 crisis, the overall objective is much more ambiguous than in a major war. The Covid-19 crisis comes from nature. As the blockade shows, our efforts can also create significant difficulties. We need to use the information available to make decisions, so that the sacrifices are less than the suffering avoided in the long term. If you don’t like to consider such compensation 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 generally not subject to such trade-offs, and the options have to do with the best way to achieve it.
Second, even though certain areas may see further disruptions, the overall outcome of a major war is the same for the entire country. But the results in the Covid-19 crisis may be different in all states and cities, depending on the underlying conditions and how each city and state responds. Furthermore, given the differences in economies, health systems, and administrative systems, the appropriate responses to Covid-19 may vary by city and state.
Third, the economy of great wars is different from the economy 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 into 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 tracking, testing, isolation and treatment, is much lower than that of a major war, if we do not find ways to keep much of the economy running, well-being The costs will be quite high. And even if we break 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 the lead. Without a doubt, 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. Individual and family choices, community collective action, business innovations, and government coercion are important.
Given these differences, the use of the war metaphor is detrimental because it distorts 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-centralize power and avoid approaches that do not give direct control may run out of control. 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 the key benefits of our democracy, the ability to adapt and experiment and take advantage of voluntary mobilization and community action based on freely available information, can be lost.
Two, the war metaphor makes it difficult to hold the government politically accountable for its actions, not only in this crisis, but also in relation to pre-existing problems. In India, the war metaphor makes it difficult to criticize the government, as we are generally expected to rebel against an external enemy. But given the nature of the compensations in this crisis, public debate and accountability are necessary. Furthermore, India had pre-existing problems that this crisis may accentuate, but the framing of “war” will make it difficult to address them. The Indian economy had slowed for seven quarters, with two components of demand – exports and capital formation – declining in the last quarter. If only one reason is given in this regard, the war against Covid-19, for all the problems, we will lose the opportunity to understand the reasons and make peace.
To quote Bishop Joseph Butler, everything is what it is, and nothing else. An epidemic is an epidemic. A war is a war.
Suyash Rai is a member of Carnegie India, New Delhi, and Rahul Verma is a member of the Center for Policy Research
The opinions expressed are personal.