On March 11, President Biden reflected on the first-year anniversary of the coronavirus shutdown in the United States. In the course of a year, over half a million Americans died due to the virus. For many, that number is too large to comprehend, but the president sought to put it into context: During an address delivered in the White House, Biden remarked, "That's more deaths than in World War I, World War II, the Vietnam War, and 9/11 combined."
The comparison may not seem like anything to linger on, but it is part of a larger problematic trend: In the U.S., the pandemic has been primarily contextualized through war. Not only are the deaths of past wars invoked, but politicians and media alike have borrowed war's language and framework, and even policies inspired by wars, to understand or respond to the pandemic's tragedies.
Consider how last spring, many pleaded with former President Donald Trump to invoke the Defense Production Act. Passed in 1950 at the start of the Korean War, the DPA allows the president to direct private companies to prioritize orders from the federal government. Many called upon Trump to use it to ensure states could obtain necessary medical equipment, like masks and ventilators, amidst shortages. But it's not like the DPA sat untouched for decades. Few examined how worrisome it was that, in response to a public health crisis, the U.S. needed to lean on an act the Department of Defense had more recently used to obtain metals for building lasers, jet engines, and armored vehicles.
The blame for this coronavirus-war connection doesn't only rest with officials. The media has played a significant role, too. Now, my beef isn't necessarily with people writing about the "fight" or "battle" against coronavirus because, well, just fighting by itself doesn't bother me. As someone who practices martial arts and gets punched by my friends for fun, it'd be weird if it did. War, however, is much more specific, and explicit calls to it are what trouble me — like last week, when MSNBC host Chris Hayes tweeted about the U.S. approaching global vaccination as a "spare-no-expense, war-footing kind of undertaking." He added, "Imagine a 'global war on terror' but instead it's a 'global war on COVID,' and instead of lots of weapons and violence we're doing lots of saving people's lives."
While part of Hayes's tweet seems to condemn the violence of the war on terror, his comparison still uses war as the ideal reference point for a coronavirus response. But fundamentally, war and saving lives do not align, no matter what the U.S. propaganda machine may try to say otherwise.
The term "war on terror" was first used by former President George W. Bush following 9/11. In the two decades since, the U.S. has positioned itself as the savior of the Middle East, dedicated to bringing democracy abroad and ridding the world of "terrorism" — a category that is actually much more obscure than you might think. This flexibility has allowed the U.S. to launch war efforts both abroad and at home, when you consider federal targeting of oppressed communities labeled "domestic terrorists".
Of course, anyone who has critically examined history can tell you that the U.S. claiming it is saving other countries to excuse its invasion of them is nothing new. The U.S. utilized a similar framework with the Vietnam and Korean Wars, or when it bombed Laos nearly into oblivion, all done under the guise of rescuing people from communism.
But while the U.S. tries to link war to safety, the numbers say otherwise. In 2018, Brown University's Cost of War project estimated that the U.S.'s war on terror has killed 507,000 people in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. That figure is not far off from the number of coronavirus deaths that Biden mentioned in his speech, and yet, these casualties were not used to help contextualize the horrific scope of the pandemic. And when officials talk about the pandemic's other repercussions, like the millions of people newly facing homelessness, they don't make comparisons to the 37 million people displaced by the U.S during the war on terror.
It is especially important to examine this narrative of saviorship that the U.S. desperately clings to amidst calls for Western nations to step it up in global vaccination efforts. Most recently, India has made headlines as the pandemic worsens there, and last month, Biden announced plans to send the country vaccines. Some saw the decision as an opportunity to pat the U.S. on the back. But how can the U.S. position itself as doing anybody a favor if the only reason it could newly release vaccines now is because it hoarded vaccines from the start?
In March, The New York Times reported that the U.S. was sitting on tens of millions of vaccine doses. The next day, Vishal Khetpal, a resident internal medicine physician at Brown University, wrote for Slate that the U.S. needed to stop hoarding its vaccines immediately. Sharing its supply, Khetpal argued, was the best way for the U.S. to ensure that coronavirus couldn't continue mutating and spreading new variants, as it has in India.
Furthermore, last month, Akin Olla, host of the This is the Revolution podcast, wrote that Western nations' hoarding of vaccines was reinforcing old colonial lines. It's a salient point: While the U.S. shouldn't hoard vaccines regardless, it still isn't distributing them out of pure goodwill. The people of India deserve vaccines, no doubt, but the U.S. is only sending them because of its relationship with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is also known for his fascist policies. The U.S. has a political interest in ensuring it keeps ties with India, so it'll send some supplies. But there are millions of people in need in nations that the U.S. isn't making any moves to assist. And even if it does, the colonial, wartime logic of "saving" people — this time, from a virus and not political system — may rear its ugly head.
This is, perhaps, where I take the most issue with statements like Hayes's. The U.S. doesn't need to aspire to launch a war against coronavirus. First, it is worrisome that our only framework to address any issue is war. Have people forgotten of ways to care for each other? Is the propaganda so deep that war has become synonymous with care?
Those questions aside, the U.S. also does not need to aspire to launch a war against coronavirus because we already have. As a result, a public health crisis has become yet another political playground, where people living in the Fourth World and those abroad are disposable pawns. Ultimately, what we need is to abandon the language and logic of war in its entirety. That is the only way to ensure millions more people are not lost to this pandemic.