The horror of coronavirus is all too real. Don't turn it into an imaginary war

Marina Hyde

The language of war is baked in to most of us, to one degree or other. Our new daily discourse runs deep with talk of field hospitals, frontlines, the battles against an invisible enemy. The shock of the news that prime minister Boris Johnson lies seriously ill in intensive care drew a tide of messages and well-wishes from world leaders and other politicians, many of which invoked a kind of martial courage. “You are a fighter and we need you back.” “He is a fighter and will beat this virus.” Together, “we will be able to win this battle”. “You fight for a swift recovery.” “You are a fighter, and you will overcome this challenge.” I truly hope he does.

For his part, Dominic Raab – who will deputise for Johnson – was described as looking “shell-shocked” last night, before this morning chairing the “war cabinet”. According to the breakfast interview inquiries thrown at Michael Gove, it seems that one of the primary questions is whether Raab is now technically in charge of the UK’s response to a notional nuclear attack. I suppose we have to treat this as a matter of vital pertinence, though like many people living through this 100-year deadly pandemic, I’d have just three words for any nuclear power contemplating an imminent first strike at the UK: not now, mate.

Related: Boris Johnson's illness is a message to us all about the horror of coronavirus | Martin Kettle

As the news gets more horrifyingly real each day – and somehow, at the same time, more unmanageably unreal – I’m not sure who this register of battle and victory and defeat truly aids. We don’t really require a metaphor to throw the horror of viral death into sharper relief: you have to think it’s bad enough already. Plague is a standalone horseman of the apocalypse – he doesn’t need to catch a ride with war. Equally, it’s probably unnecessary to rank something we keep being informed is virtually a war with things in the past that were literally wars. “Your grandparents were called to war,” runs one popular meme. “You’re being asked to sit on a couch. You can do this.” Unsurprisingly, given this level of bellicose confusion, we have already seen those who visit the park literally branded “traitors”.

Perhaps most importantly, it should be said that people don’t die from this ghastly illness because of a lack of fight, whatever that might mean. Patients don’t “lose” against coronavirus because they failed to smite it or to personally out-strategise it. In recent years there has been a growing attempt to actually listen to people with cancer on the language used around the disease, and mountains of evidence has found that they largely disdain and frequently loathe the characterisation of their sickness as a “battle”. The absurdity of putting the burden of healing on the patient incenses many, who don’t care to be told that they are “winning their war”, or to be remembered as having “lost their battle”.

Writing on the death of Robin Gibb, Jenni Murray (herself a former cancer patient), righteously refused to characterise him as having lost any battle, instead stating the reality: “he drew the short straw of a difficult disease”. Or think of the late great Deborah Orr’s withering refusal to tolerate this nonsense in her rules on how to talk to cancer patients. “Funnily enough,” ran some typically twinkly menace, “it’s not comforting to be told that you have to go into battle with your disease, like some kind of medieval knight on a romantic quest. Submitting to medical science, in the hope of a cure, is just that – a submission. The idea that illness is a character test, with recovery as a reward for the valiant, is glib to the point of insult.”

Perhaps it would be better for us all if we resisted talking about coronavirus in this way. Last year, new research found that the ubiquity of military metaphors in cancer discussions could do more psychological harm than good, making people fatalistic about treatment chances and encouraging the feeling that altering their own behaviours was beyond them.

In our current crisis, it is interesting how the language of war is used, and by whom. Without wishing to over-generalise about that innate desire to be a hero, women in public life seem to do it rather less. Health workers themselves do it even more sparingly. Easily the most powerful thing I have seen thus far in the coverage of the deepening virus crisis was a report screened on BBC News, which was given access to an intensive care ward at University College hospital in London.

The BBC correspondent framed his film entirely in terms of war: “This is the frontline in a war,” it began. “Every day some battles are won and some are lost.” That’s certainly not a judgment on the excellent report – it may be a helpful way of communicating the desperation to many people. But it was notable that the hospital workers themselves never strayed into that kind of terminology. I can’t shake the memory of the female ER worker talking about how impossibly difficult some doctors and nurses found the unique work of the Covid-19 ICU. I don’t know how long she’d been on shift, but she spoke absolutely fluently and with absolutely no judgment. “Some of our staff can’t cope with it … not all of them can deal with it.” Not for her the veil of platitudes about heroes or battlers or victories. The grim bathos of reality is more powerful. I felt the lurch again reading a Guardian report about the desperate shortage of PPE in care homes, in which the executive chair of the National Care Association spoke plainly. “Once you run out,” she said, “you are down to Marigolds and bin liners.”

Oof. I wonder, incidentally, if I am alone in having felt the absence of any women in the government’s “war cabinet” of five top ministers, and whether we’d be hearing quite so much about wars and battles if there were more? I understand, of course, that this is where the cards fell – there are a whole six women in the cabinet, and ministers can only do the jobs that were put in front of them months before this crisis exploded. Even so, I feel the imbalance.

Then again, on Sunday night, the Queen made an address to the nation that – to surprise in some quarters – ended up being powerful even to many of those who feel the Jedi mind trick of royalty does not usually work on them. Her Majesty certainly mentioned the war. But she provided something that has not been in ready supply from government podiums over the past few weeks, yet is arguably needed more and more as the darkness sets in: a strangely homespun oratory. Castlespun, whatever.

This was not the oratory we associate with soaring wartime speeches or martial inspiration. The callback to her first broadcast, made in 1940 to evacuated children, was particularly affecting. For all the second world war metaphors we’ve had over the past month, this was the first time the parallel was made explicitly with what war really means for the vast, vast majority, who don’t regard it as a chance to be the hero of popular stereotype and earn their glorious mentions in dispatches. For them – for us – war is a state of fear, of seeing our children frightened, of being the victims of immense disruption, and of being separated or sundered from many of those we love. War is not epic poetry. Death is all around us; let’s dispense with the endless conscription.

• Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist