Metaphors Matter in a Time of Pandemic

A cartoon globe with protrusions emerging from it, meant to look like a virus..

It’s by far the #1 topic of conversation this year. You knew immediately (even without the image) what we were referring to, right? The COVID pandemic, of course. Public discourse about the pandemic and the virus that causes the disease relies heavily on war metaphors. Words like battlecombatdefeatfight, and others are everywhere in media of all kinds and in personal conversations—so much so that it seems like there are no other ways to think about the situation. Writer and columnist Virginia Heffernan argues that there are better ways to think and talk about the pandemic, and she explains her position in this May 2020 essay in Wired.

Read it here.


1. What arguments does Heffernan make for the unsuitability of war metaphors when talking about the  COVID-19 pandemic? List the reasons and rank them in order of persuasiveness. Explain your rankings. 

2. Heffernan begins her essay on metaphors about the new coronavirus with—what else?—a metaphor. She opens with a brief description of a park in Peru that is one of the most biodiverse places on earth. At first, the mention of this park may seem irrelevant. How relevant does it seem to you once you’ve read the whole essay? Would her essay have been stronger without it? Why or why not? Explain how you arrived at your conclusion.

3. LET’S TALK. Heffernan bluntly states, “This isn’t war. It’s enlightenment.” Accept, if only as a thought exercise, that her assertion is correct. In what ways might your fundamental ideas about COVID-19 shift or change as a result? Discuss this question with a few classmates; share your reflections and listen to theirs. 

4. LET’S WRITE. Heffernan replaces the customary metaphors of immune system as warrior and coronavirus as enemy with a new pair: immune system as bouncer and coronavirus as a “troublesome visitor.” Would adopting Heffernan’s new metaphors be useful to you as an individual coping with dangerous circumstances? Why or why not? If the metaphors became part of a community’s everyday discourse about public health, would they be useful for developing public policy? Why or why not? Write an essay that addresses these questions and takes a position.

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