War on hugs: Covid-19 fighting talk is loved and loathed

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War on hugs: Covid-19 fighting talk is loved and loathed

All that wartime imagery has ruffled feathers when used cynically by leaders to garner support

Journalist
The sight of health workers in protective suits and draconian regulations have prompted companies and people to view the coronavirus pandemic as an enemy that must be defeated as if in a war.
Battle grounds The sight of health workers in protective suits and draconian regulations have prompted companies and people to view the coronavirus pandemic as an enemy that must be defeated as if in a war.
Image: AFP/Simon Maina

Some companies around the world, including in SA, are adopting a “wartime mentality” in their production lines, turning their attention to developing what is needed to fight Covid-19.

This harks back to World War 2 when, for example, General Motors turned its attention to making aeroplane engines, guns, trucks and tanks.

South African Breweries announced last week it was donating alcohol from its breweries to help manufacture hand sanitiser.

It went public on Facebook, stating: “As a company that’s been around for 125 years, this is how we are showing up for Mzansi, at a time when it’s most needed.”

This echoes what LVMH in France (known to consumers as Louis Vuitton) is doing, too: the luxury fashion and cosmetics brand says it will donate 12 tons of hand sanitiser across Paris’s 39 public hospitals.

LVMH released a statement saying the facilities where top-end fragrances like Dior and Givenchy are made will now also be repurposed to produce disinfecting gel.

This shift to a wartime mentality, not just in production but in the social sense too, was promoted by the Chinese ambassador to SA early on during the spread of the virus.

Some are rejecting the notion of the pandemic as a time of war because of the macho and military implications around the word.

On February 14, ambassador Lin Songtian, speaking at the embassy in Cape Town, said it was safer to keep people where they were.

“This is wartime. We are at war with the virus,” he said in an impassioned speech, adding that until people adjusted their expectations to a wartime setting, they would feel frustrated.

“In a war, would you complain that you had been told to stay in your hotel?” he asked. “No, you would understand that it is necessary because there is a war on, and personal sacrifices and conveniences have to be made.”

Other leaders across the world have echoed his sentiments as people across the globe grumble about lockdowns and slowdowns.

Joshua Gans, a professor at the University of Toronto, reached out to Canadians via the media, saying all spheres of life had to be adapted as if in wartime.

“Accessing resources quickly in an emergency is something we have done before, during wartime. Countries always shift their approach during times of war. It is profoundly uncomfortable. The bad news is that the government will have to seize control of manufacturing facilities to produce the things that are needed. They may have to conscript people to ensure work is done and healthcare is provided.”

He said the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 “cost more lives than both world wars combined”, and that the coronavirus pandemic was “on track to do the same”, and the time to act was “now”.

However, the war imagery has ruffled feathers when used cynically by leaders to garner support.

Last week, US President Donald Trump compared himself to “a wartime president”, prompting scorn from many media outlets which pointed out that he first, as the Chicago Tribune put it, “spent weeks downplaying and dismissing the virus”.

Some are rejecting the notion of the pandemic as a time of war because of the macho and military implications around the word.

Prof Nicky Falkof, a cultural studies expert at Wits University, told Times Select: “Personally, I don’t think a ‘wartime mentality’ is ever useful. It suggests we need to be cheerful and put up with inconvenience, but it also suggests there’s a clear and defined enemy we can ‘beat’.”

She said another problem with talking about disease as though it as a war was that it drew on ideas of “courage, bravery and machismo”. This had prompted people “with particular ideological perspectives” in the US, for example, to boast about how they had “refused to be cowed” and had made a point of going to restaurants, religious services and so on to show they’re “not afraid of the enemy”. 

Falkof said: “This isn’t a thing we can beat by just fighting hard. It’s something that will take time and require diligent lifestyle changes rather than performative heroics.”