Corona Warspeak: The Language of Disease, Nostalgia and Militarism in COVID-19 Britain Part II

We are speaking, reading and writing about the Coronavirus crisis in new and rapidly changing ways. This is having a significant impact on our lives, on the way we think, on our values and morality, on how we are coming to reimagine ourselves as individuals, as a society, as a nation. Corona Warspeak intersects with British preoccupations with sacrifice, duty, honour, public service and, above all, militarism. Historian of ideas Dr Richard Morgan concludes his two-part article on these matters.

It is through the term ‘invisible war’ that we are able to move fluidly between two mutually exclusive interpretations of the pandemic. On the one hand the ‘invisible war’ is global, ‘a global war in which all of humanity is on the same side’, as the health minister once put it, in which humanity is a biological species, seeking to cure itself of an existential threat to its life on planet Earth. On the other hand, the ‘invisible war’ is a national war, a good old British war, in which we speak and hear not about humanity and the species, but about the British people, not about the global health community, but about the NHS, not about the world, but about the nation, not about global coordination, but about a national effort in which we are all in this together.

Such ambivalence is a sign of Corona Warspeak’s confused and contradictory nature. Something developing so rapidly could not hope to be consistent and coherent. And in this ambivalence, it shares the qualities of what Orwell described in Nineteen Eighty-Four as ‘Doublethink’; that is, an ability to hold two opposing ideas in one’s mind at the same time without any tension whatsoever. In Corona Warspeak the ‘invisible war’ is simultaneously a global war in which all of humanity is on the same side and a national war in which the British state must protect the British people, and in which the entire nation grieves for the British people who have died from the virus.

The ‘invisible war’ gives a curious spin to the relationship of sight to knowledge in ‘BC’ Britain, where if something was ‘out of sight’, it was ‘out of mind’, and where ‘seeing was believing’. For while ‘out of sight’, the ‘invisible war’ is more ‘in mind’ than ‘out’, and though an ‘invisible war’ cannot be seen, it is universally believed to be happening.

And I think this is because the ‘invisible war’ is not invisible at all – as the government’s ‘messaging’ likes to tell us – but, and partly as a result of that ‘messaging’, overtly visible. It can be seen everywhere: in bus stops, in every shop window, on public notices in towns and cities up and down the country, on every news broadcast, on the ‘Coronavirus Daily Update’, in every newspaper and magazine. To call it an ‘invisible war’ is simply irresponsible shorthand for conveying the very simple idea that the biological threat cannot be seen with the naked eye without the help of a microscope. But the crowded hospital wards are visible, and the masked humans in supermarkets are visible, and the distance people keep from each other is visible too, and so are the empty streets and the closed shops and the visors and the plastic gloves. The ramped-up police presence is visible, the death of a family member is visible by its absence, and the suffering of people in hospital beds is visible, although behind closed doors, as are their convulsions of coughing, their fever, their panic, their fear, their unconsciousness. The pulsating of a ventilator is visible. The coronavirus crisis is hyper-visible.

And being engaged in an ‘invisible war’, we are told, means to be at war with an ‘invisible enemy’. As a form of government ‘messaging’, this concept in Corona Warspeak has had serious consequences for the social and individual experience of the coronavirus crisis. It characterises the virus as a cunning sinister adversary, tip-toeing behind us, lurking around every corner. As an ‘invisible enemy’ the virus is framed as an evil opponent with its own agency, with a sworn purpose to destroy us, determined to give everything in its power to bring about our demise.

But the virus doesn’t have agency at all. It doesn’t have a purpose. It doesn’t have a character. It has not consciously identified human beings or Britain as its enemy. And is it possible to be at war with something without any agency, that doesn’t think, that doesn’t have a plan, that doesn’t even know what it is doing because it doesn’t know anything, because it doesn’t have a brain or consciousness or a sense of self and a sense of reality?

Characterising the virus as an ‘invisible enemy’ makes it terrifying. Here, the government’s ‘messaging’ acts like the familiar technique used in horror movies to create suspense. Keeping the threat out of sight, with constant reminders of its ever-presence, entraps the audience in a state of nervous, paralysed anxiety. We all know that the scariest films are not those in which you see the monster, the ghost, or the alien, not those with blood and guts and graphic gory scenes, but those in which you barely see the threat at all, perhaps never, but know it is always there and that it will inevitably strike. Alien is scarier than Aliens. A Quiet Place was scarier before the monsters are seen. Signs creates fear through the absence of visible danger.

Notwithstanding its capacity to increase fear, panic, suspense, and anxiety, the government’s ‘invisible enemy’ ‘messaging’ could, and probably will be justified for securing the population’s obedience to its lockdown instructions. A population in fear of each other is likely to stay at least 2 metres apart. A population in fear of the invisible threat of the outside world is likely to ‘stay at home’. In this way, the ‘invisible enemy’ message operates on the population like a surveillance system: one doesn’t need to know one is being watched to be encouraged to obey the rules; one only needs to be aware of the possibility of being watched to keep oneself in line. And now one doesn’t need to be certain that the virus is in the bloodstream of a friend to be encouraged not to meet them; one only needs to be convinced of the possibility that it could be there to be persuaded to avoid contact. And being ‘invisible’, that possibility is always there.

So when framed as an invisible enemy the threat of the virus appears everywhere and nowhere all at once. In a sense, it renders the whole war spaceless. And can viruses even be defeated at all, invisible or otherwise, like an enemy in the traditional sense? Or are they simply controlled, got a handle on, kept in check like some subaltern native population under the rule of an imperialist power (perhaps the imagery of colonialism would have been more apt though which to frame the British experience of the coronavirus crisis)?

One of the consequences of being engaged in an ‘invisible war’ against an ‘invisible enemy’ is that the ‘front line’ is continuously being re-defined and re-identified. Unlike the clearly defined trenches of WWI from which it gets its name, the ‘front line’ in Corona Warspeak has no clear location or limit at all.

In the first days of the ‘invisible war’ the ‘front line’ meant the spaces of National Health Service work, mainly hospitals. Politicians would pay tribute to the doctors and nurses on the ‘front line’. This included the newly built Nightingale Hospital, a neat example itself of Corona Warspeak’s top-down ‘messaging’, named by the state, no doubt, to present NHS staff as wartime medics, tending to British casualties during a military conflict. In so doing, the government was recycling the official messaging made during the Crimean War, when Florence Nightingale was transformed into an icon of the selfless care of the British state towards its wartime wounded. Naming the new hospital after this symbol of British battlefield sacrifice was to re-spin a message already spun.

Within weeks the ‘front line’ had shifted, however, from the specific physical sites of NHS work to a more fluid, all-inclusive notion of public space. What was at first a medical space, the ‘front line’ quickly transformed and expanded to include an array of all sorts of social sites, including schools, buses, trains, shops, streets, police stations, care homes, supermarket checkouts, and construction sites. Anyone whose work could not be done while ‘staying at home’, who had to go outside, into public, where the ‘invisible enemy’ might or might not be lurking, was now fighting on the ‘front line’ in an ‘invisible war’, selflessly keeping the country going, sacrificing themselves for the greater good.

And the categories of people who fight on the ‘front line’ are also continuously changing. NHS workers, later becoming ‘NHS heroes’ have been fighting on the ‘front line’ since the beginning, when the ‘front line’ was exclusively a place where medical treatment of the virus was administered. At that time, everybody else who worked in the public sector, who provided some indispensable, though traditionally undervalued and previously un-respected service to the community, were ‘essential workers’ or ‘key workers’, who made their ‘essential journeys’ on public transport to and from work while everybody else ‘stayed at home’. As the notion of the ‘front line’ in Corona Warspeak enlarged into the wider public realm, however, the people who worked on it underwent a corresponding transformation. Bus drivers, train drivers, taxi drivers, road sweepers, teachers, checkout assistants, packers, traffic wardens, policemen, firemen, shelf-stackers, park attendants, security guards, shop workers, carers, and cleaners suddenly found themselves being referred to, and so actually becoming, ‘frontline workers’. The Duchess of Cambridge used the term herself during a recent video-linked national address from her royal home. And in some cases, ‘frontline workers’ are even becoming ‘frontline heroes’, reaching a level of national prestige and respect previously reserved exclusively for doctors and nurses.

And the newly-made government call for a national one-minute silence for ‘frontline workers’ who have died from coronavirus confirms the conceptual shift that has taken place – in the course of a matter of weeks – in the public imagination of what the ‘front line’ is and who is fighting on it.

These shifts in the evolution of Corona Warspeak’s language and concepts is one of its most fascinating aspects, indicating how the dimensions and values of the coronavirus crisis are continually under modification. They are illustrated well by the phenomenon of Thursday night doorstep clapping, for example, that has become one of the most iconic features of the ‘invisible war’. The first clap was hailed as a ‘clap for the NHS’, the following week as a ‘clap for the NHS and all key workers’, and the week after that as a ‘clap for carers’, on whose trite alteration it rested and which to this day it remains.

Such subtle developments in the identification of the ‘front line’ and its ‘heroes’ are also observable on the written messages of window-rainbows, those child-drawn signs of support for ‘NHS heroes’, presented to the street from the inside of homes during quarantine. To the original ‘Thank You NHS!!’ message has now commonly been added, in another pen, in adult handwriting, ‘+ all key workers’, or ‘+ all our frontline workers’, or ‘+ all frontline heroes’. Some specifically list ‘key-worker’ professions, thanking policemen, firemen, and shop workers, for example, or carers, cleaners, and dustbin men. The official government advert for the recently launched ‘essential worker’ testing scheme depicts ‘key workers’ in a line-up of everyday Britons, including a doctor, a fireman, a policewoman, two nurses, a white-collar construction worker, a road sweeper, a delivery man, and a butcher.

Yet while the ‘front line’ expands, incorporating ‘key’ and ‘essential workers’ into a holistic image of total war, the NHS remains Britain’s most valued fighting unit. ‘NHS heroes’ are the paratroopers of our ‘invisible war’, fighting behind enemy lines (is this even possible against an ‘invisible enemy’?), seeing the worst of the action. One of Belfast’s many new graffitied murals depicts NHS staff as frontier soldiers fighting at the furthest reaches of the Empire, collectively raising the flag of the NHS on enemy territory, sticking its base into COVID-19 microbes beneath their feet. The artwork replicates the imagery of Joe Rosenthal’s famous photograph of US Marines raising the Star-Spangled Banner in Iwo Jima at the end of the Pacific War (later sculptured into the Marine Corps War Memorial in Washington DC). In this imitation, the mural calls on one of the most iconic images of war and conquest in Western culture in order to represent the current work of the British National Health Service.

Recently graffitied ‘VICTORY TO THE NHS’ messages in Northern Ireland belong to a tradition of spray-painting one’s loyalty during The Troubles, fitting the current crisis neatly within the frame of a bloody conflict. Alongside the many other NHS murals appearing all over the UK, as well as the millions of homemade signs of support for the NHS, these graffitied messages are perfect examples of the bottom-up aspect of Corona  Warspeak, of the spontaneous, creative urge of the British public to write itself into the war, to take part in the national effort, to do its bit, to show a public sign of loyalty to the nation. In conjunction with the UK government’s top-down messaging, such grass-root expressions of Corona Warspeak point to the vast and varied scale in which it is being formed, in which multiple actors play their part in its creation, innovation, and spread.

The NHS is without doubt the armed forces of our ‘invisible war’, its ‘heroes’ fighting on the ‘front line’ against the ‘invisible enemy’. Yet, while the language and iconography depicting the NHS differs very little in tone and style to representations of the armed forces in previous conflicts, the actual role of the NHS in the coronavirus crisis is fundamentally different. In a subtle inversion of the realities of war and battle, where the armed forces traditionally seek to defeat the enemy by killing human beings, the NHS’s job is to defeat the ‘invisible enemy’ by keeping human beings alive. In contrast to the real armed forces, the NHS specializes in saving lives, not taking them.

We are led through this ‘conflict’ by a Prime Minister who very nearly became one of its legendary martyrs. That our wartime leader suffered personally during the ‘invisible war’ gives him veteran status, the prestige of having been to the ‘front line’, face-to-face with the ‘invisible enemy’, and yet pulling through, returning stronger than ever. Indeed, that the PM survived is described as a sign of his Churchillian ‘fighting’ spirit and ‘battling’ qualities. Moreover, his story is now a perfect metaphorical, microcosmic narrative of the ideal experience of the warring nation, which must suffer, sacrifice, stay strong, persevere, defeat the enemy, and return to work victorious.

During the PM’s hospitalisation the cabinet ‘kept calm and carried on’. It became the ‘COVID Cabinet’, as one radio presenter remarked, a tightly-knit group of individuals   entrusted with the efficient continuation of the ‘invisible war’. In its ‘Coronavirus Daily Update’ addresses to the nation, stood once more at the lectern, the ‘COVID Cabinet’ presents itself as an impenetrable phalanx, marching onwards under a rain of arrowed questions from the press, spearheading the overall national effort towards victory.

The invisible-war effort is being rallied in Britain by the glorification of individual stories of sacrifice and heroism. The now famous Captain Tom Moore – a 100-year old war veteran who walked 100 times around his house during lockdown, raising millions of pounds for the NHS – was singled out in the Prime Minister’s latest speech as an example of going over and beyond the call of duty. Anyone who watched his televised final lap – dressed in military garb, medals hanging, passing through a guard of honour from the 1st Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment, saluted, literally, by the press – could be in no doubt that the experience of the global coronavirus pandemic in Britain has firmly taken root as a highly militarised conflict, in which the symbols and language and concepts of war are being evoked in the creation of a nostalgically embraced wartime national spirit.

When in the early days of the ‘invisible war’ 750,000 people registered online to become public service volunteers, it was heralded as the creation of ‘an army of volunteers’. Duty-bound citizens were now ‘signing up’, like the millions of men in 1914, to form a ‘volunteer army’, taking it upon themselves to serve their country, whatever the cost.

The ‘front line’ in our ‘invisible war’ is Corona Warspeak’s equivalent to the Homefront of WWII, being a space of public service work, where ‘invaluable contributions’ are made inside the nation, within its borders, without which the war would be lost and the country defeated. And so what of the Homefront of our ‘invisible war’? The Homefront is the home itself, the private home, where civilians ‘stay at home’ and watch the war unfold through their screens, where they count the ‘daily death toll’ from their sofas, and where doing nothing is actually doing something, ‘doing your bit’, a passive act of sacrifice for Queen and country.

For even staying at home has become known as a selfless act of national sacrifice, a heavy burden of responsibility gravely undertaken and modestly carried out. Like Lieutenant Dan in Forrest Gump, whose destiny was to sacrifice himself for his country as his father, grandfather and great-grandfather had done before him, the British people are now being are asked to take their place in the long line of British generations who have done their bit and sacrificed themselves for their country. And of course, as the slogan goes, staying at home, is not only a ‘shielding’ act, by which one will ‘protect the NHS’, but an act of salvation, one that can ‘save lives’, heal the country, and breath life back into the British nation.

New social values and norms – ‘new normals’ – are coming into play for ‘stay-at-home’ civilians as the ‘invisible war’ develops. Social is now the new selfish. To see one’s friends and family, to be enlivened by human contact, to share and love and caress and sooth, is now to think only of oneself, to put yourself before others, to value ‘I’ before ‘We’. And to be alone is the new social. To suffer isolation, to not only refuse, but shun those who make social invitations, to stay distanced from the rest of the community, is now to be a truly social being, to put society before your ego, and to act for the sake of us, not I.

The trending status for online dating apps is ‘Meeting is Murder’, a deadly warning against doing the very thing that such platforms were designed to facilitate. For ‘stay-at-home’ civilians, romance in the traditional sense is now under review. The meeting of bodies, the touching of lips – in short, the physical chemistry at work in the embryonic moments of a romantic blossoming – is no longer a purely creative act, bringing into existence the beautiful promise of new love, but a potentially destructive one that could snatch a loved one away from another forever. For to simply hold a hand, to feel the tingling exchange of sensual electricity passing between palms and fingertips, is now to give the ‘invisible enemy’ the upper hand, to betray the ‘NHS heroes’ fighting on the ‘front line’, to undermine the ‘national effort’, to be a traitor to one’s country.

And finally, when ‘stay-at-home’ civilians tuned into the Queen’s speech – her ‘finest hour’, as it became known – they were taken on a royal tour of the values and morality of the British war ethic. Her ‘hope’ that ‘in the years to come everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge’, harks directly back to the mass mobilisation strategy of the ‘Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?’ recruitment poster from 1915, urging people to ‘stay at home’ through an appeal to their own personal sense of self-worth when, perhaps, they will be asked by future generations about what they did or did not do when their country needed them the most. Her reference to children evacuees during WWII, when then, as now, people felt ‘a heavy sense of separation from their loved ones’, makes a direct link between WWII and the coronavirus crisis, drawing a line of historical continuity between the two events, and firmly places this crisis in a long tradition of British wartime experiences. And the famous Vera Lynn climax, reassuring us that ‘we will meet again’, is not simply a convenient, knowing nod to the past, but demonstrates how even talk of the future, of a time when this crisis is over, is as reliant on the motifs and emotional drawstrings of British wartime heritage as are depictions of the crisis itself.

Image by 愚木混株 Cdd20 from Pixabay

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