What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Viruses?

What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Viruses?

What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Viruses?

As in previous pandemics, a rise in xenophobic, nationalistic, and militaristic language has returned amid the Covid-19 crisis.


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There is nothing more natural than a virus. In fact, we would not exist without them. Viruses have been recognized as the primary drivers of evolution on Earth and endure in far greater numbers than we do. So why have viruses garnered such a negative reputation?

The word “virus,” based on the Latin for “poisonous secretion,” was first used in the medical field in medieval times in reference to the discharge from an ulcer or wound. From there, the term expanded to include any substance within the body that caused infectious disease. But most viruses are not actually pathogenic to humans: they play integral roles in maintaining equilibrium within our ecosystem and our own bodies. DNA sequences derived from viruses, or viral elements, make up approximately 8 percent of the human genome. While these elements often remain inactive in our DNA, there have been several instances of viral code conferring new and important functions. One such example is the neuronal gene Arc, which is derived originally from viruses and encodes a protein that plays a foundational role in long-term memory formation. In short, we need viruses to both survive and thrive.

Yet, sometime during the 19th century, viruses became etched into the collective consciousness as harbingers of disease and devastation. We began referring to them as “alien” and “foreign,” anthropomorphizing them despite the fact that, scientifically, viruses are categorized as nonliving. In her critical 1978 essay “Disease as a Political Metaphor,” Susan Sontag explains that as this shift occurred, society began to rely more on viruses and other infectious agents as metaphors to describe political and cultural failures. She describes how we would first give a disease a meaning—“that meaning being invariably a moralistic one”—before tying the disease to societal shortcomings such as corruption, decay, pollution, and weakness. Ultimately, the disease would become a metaphor unto itself.

Expanding on this idea in 1988 in “AIDS and Its Metaphors,” Sontag argues that “there is a link between imagining disease and imagining foreignness…. a person judged to be wrong is regarded as, at least potentially, a source of pollution.” This link is harmful not only because it misrepresents the role of viruses in our world—since there is nothing more natural or familiar than a virus—but because it uses coded anti-immigrant language to shift the responsibility of any consequences following disease onto already marginalized groups, providing an easy scapegoat.

This practice of drawing connections between adverse events and outside influences is deeply rooted. “I think it’s related to that idea of othering, [of] separating ourselves from things that we consider negative,” says Valerie Fridland, a sociolinguist and professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. “This [leads to] a framing bias which does not reflect the word itself, but how we’ve been trained to understand or perceive that term because of the things it’s co-allocated with.”

She explains that “since we have a cultural model where foreignness is bad, the term ‘foreign’ [ultimately] gets used in negative ways.” By calling viruses, which people identify with harm and disease, “alien” and “foreign,” an unfavorable association is created that flows in both directions. “Eventually foreign matter to your body and foreign matter to your country are equated even though they’re different things, but by using the same term we bring together these associations of being an out-group.”

Over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, the associations between viruses and foreignness have heightened. However, this is not a new phenomenon. During the onset of previous public health crises, there was an uptick in stigmatizing metaphors as well as heightened nationalism. The Spanish flu was referred to by the Spanish as the French flu, by the Germans as the Russian flu, and by the Russians as the Chinese flu. Perhaps the biggest irony of the Spanish flu was that it originated in Kansas, though this was clearly not reflected in the discourse at the time. “We never hear mention of the American virus for the same reason that we never hear about the fruitful virus,” writes Fridland—“because America has a positive valence and [in language] it’s always negative terms that co-occur.”

Like the Spanish flu, the AIDS crisis unearthed similar surges of nationalism, and the disease was consistently alluded to as a “plague” or “pollutant,” signifying the country’s stance on the segments of society that were primarily being impacted.

Military metaphors were rattled off in abundance as well. Alex de Waal, author of New Pandemics, Old Politics, explains in a Baffler essay that the political and social responses to pandemics are “dully predictable” and reflect an ecology that we have engineered. The Spanish flu was structured around the organization of total war, while the AIDS crisis centered on Western conquest and “the reorganization of colonially subjugated societies for the profit of their imperial masters.”

Both the urge to mobilize nationalism and the use of militaristic language have returned amid the Covid-19 crisis. Politicians and world leaders, most infamously former President Trump, referred to the novel coronavirus as “the Chinese virus,” “the Wuhan virus,” and perhaps most regrettably, “Kung Flu.” Trump also decided to declare war on the virus, even saying he viewed himself as “a wartime president” and identifying China as the enemy. Unfortunately, this “war” is unwinnable, and this language glorifies violence and detracts from the empathy necessary to survive.

War and battle metaphors cannot be considered in a vacuum, as they are very much intertwined with the xenophobia that accompanies the idea of “closing borders” to a “foreign virus.” Abdullah Shihipar, writer and public health researcher at Brown University, explains how it’s impossible to disconnect racist sentiments regarding the pandemic from attitudes about migration. “The language of it always says that variants are ‘coming in’, but we’re seeing a lot of Westerners traveling right not for nonessential reasons and although they can bring the virus to other countries even if they’re fully vaccinated, we don’t technically view Westerners traveling abroad as facilitators of the virus,” he says. “Meanwhile, immigrants, specifically migrants and asylum seekers because they’re the ones who are completely shut out of Europe and the US under the guise of pandemic control, are seen as the ones who bring disease.”

The World Health Organization recently initiated a promising shift in this rhetoric by introducing a new naming system in which variants of Covid-19 are referred to by Greek letters instead of the countries where they are first detected. This is a critical step not only toward dismantling xenophobic naming practices, but towards increasing transparency, since it will be less costly to a nation to report a new variant when the name of the new variant is not forever tied to that nation.

Organizations focusing on health literacy have also been pushing back against militaristic vocabulary to describe disease, since research has shown that patients who use metaphors such as “enemy” to refer to their disease are more likely to feel depressed and anxious. And while it is important to recognize the impact of language on patient empowerment, we must push beyond reassessing language in the context of individuals and examine how it reflects greater societal sentiments.

Ultimately, the way we talk about viruses needs to change. They are neither foreign nor alien; they do not act with intent; and they should not be spoken about in code for anti-immigrant sentiment. Viruses are drivers of evolution, and they rely on their hosts remaining healthy to facilitate that process. After all, the point of a virus is life, not death.

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