“We’re at war with a virus,” Joe Biden said in Sunday’s Democratic primary debate. He was not alone. “We have to fight that invisible enemy—unknown, but we are getting to know it a lot better,” President Trump said on Tuesday. “One day we will be standing possibly up here and saying, well, ‘We won.’” They were joined in this battle by Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan, who announced Sunday that humanity was engaged “in a war to contain this virus,” while also wondering aloud “how we do that as employers.”
War rhetoric, like all stilted political language, is tailored “to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind,” as Orwell put it. So it is with the politicians, wonks, and CEOs who are declaring war to conquer Covid-19. In this narrative, the coronavirus is a discrete, external challenge to Americans, and Americans will defeat it. That’s not really how viruses work; as we’ve discovered with terrorism, communism, gangs, drugs, poverty, and obesity, that’s not really how wars work.
And yet, there’s something subtly satisfying, something that feels necessary, in the urgent call for a mass mobilization against a novel communicable disease that could kill more Americans in the next year than the Axis powers killed in World War II. Those of us taking responsible measures—canceling engagements, homeschooling children, self-isolation, fearing for the health and well-being of everyone we know and everyone we don’t—are already acting as conscripts in a mass battle of patience and attrition. How do our would-be commanders envision the war on coronavirus playing out? What sort of combat is this to be?
Like most recent American wars, the battle against the coronavirus is already checkered by the immense incompetence of the administration that launched it. We now know that key Trump administration officials had been briefed by outgoing Obama staffers on an eerily prescient “Pandemic Response” case study that modeled “the worst influenza pandemic since 1918.” Rather than take the discussion to heart, Trump hired John Bolton, who dissolved the National Security Council’s global health security team, precisely a century after the flu’s last major decimation. Nevertheless, here was Trump last week, telling reporters that “you can never really think it’s going to happen. Six, seven, eight weeks ago—who would have thought we would even be having the subject?”
If the bliss is as intense as the ignorance, Trumpworld must be in nirvana. “There’s no briefing that can prepare you for a worldwide pandemic,” Sean Spicer, the former administration flack and television flamenco stylist, said when asked about his attendance at the 2017 briefing—again, titled “Pandemic Response”—that the Obama White House put together to prepare Spicer and his colleagues. (Spicer is, to my knowledge, the first Navy Reserve commander to reject preparedness briefings so thoroughly since the Battle of Savo Island.)
Some Democrats, meanwhile, don’t see the coronavirus crisis as merely a rhetorical war. Biden and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo have suggested mobilizing the military to build tent health facilities or repurpose base installations as care centers; Cuomo also suggested he be given control of the Army Corps of Engineers. The military has had to push back by reminding politicians that its medical and logistical assets are geared toward treatment of mass casualties, not limitation of viral contagion. (The Pentagon has already begun to contend with coronavirus cases among ships’ crews and in barracks, as well as the recently gained knowledge that its most hardened nuclear-proof bunkers can’t protect against simple viruses.) “The Department of Defense is ready, willing and able to support civilian authorities to the greatest extent possible,” Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Rath Hoffman told reporters Monday. “We just want to make sure that the conversation that is being had is informed by the facts of what is possible, what is not, and what those trade-offs are.”
It’s not only possible but likely that this war on infection will be both authoritarian and open-ended in nature. Sometimes, this will be to urge public complacency when the government seeks to conceal its own incompetence. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar refused to answer questions on Sunday about how many ventilators—the key determinant in how many Covid-19 victims will live or die—the United States had on hand, calling it a “national security” issue. (Trump, meanwhile, has advised the nation’s governors looking for respirators and ventilators to “try getting it yourselves.”)
Other times, the war will simply advance the white supremacist agenda that’s always undergirded Trump’s presidency. After weeks of downplaying the coronavirus’s threat to American life, and suggesting that it was a Democratic hoax to damage him, Trump declared himself a war president last week. He announced in his Oval Office address that the White House was “marshaling the full power of the federal government and the private sector to protect the American people” in an “aggressive and comprehensive effort to confront a foreign virus.” After winning plaudits from pundits for soberly shifting to a tone of seriousness about the virus threat on Monday, Trump tweeted, “The United States will be powerfully supporting” industries “that are particularly affected by the Chinese Virus,” a racist construction that scads of Republican senators, staffers, and talking heads have been quick to parrot.
Trump is following an ancient playbook already adopted by his global peers in absolute idiocracy like Viktor Orban, the Hungarian arch-right nativist president who vowed to close off his nation’s borders before even a single case of coronavirus had appeared in Hungary. (There are now 50 documented cases of infection in the country: So much for walls and border controls.) As infections and death tolls rise exponentially, so will the pressure on unenlightened despots to demonstrate their power over people’s freedoms of movement. On Monday night, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government sidestepped the Parliament to approve an emergency measure to use massive amounts of cell phone data, gathered by Israel’s intelligence service, to track the locations of suspected coronavirus carriers and identify subjects to be quarantined. “I don’t want to sound like a dissident, but if your right to privacy is important for you, you ought to be worried,” one Israeli democracy watchdog told The New York Times. “This is not war or an intifada. It’s a civilian event and should be treated like one.”
But like a war, the coronavirus pandemic is likely to inflict far more casualties than we normally count. It has taken months to get a seeming majority of Americans to take seriously the possibility that their behavior means life or death for friends, loved ones, and strangers who are susceptible to the virus’s direct effects. But virtually no one is focused on the cascade of privation, depression, and death that will come as indirect effects of the virus’s progress: patients with other afflictions who will die as Covid-19 victims take up ICU space, equipment, and personnel; healthy delivery drivers who fall asleep at the wheel covering shifts for a sick colleague or picking up extra work to cover a shortfall at home. The permutations are endless. The government’s will to track them is, thus far, nil.
In America in my lifetime, war has not been a vehicle for positive outcomes, but for normalizing a particular kind of process in which a White House’s caprices and a populace’s complacency expand indefinitely. In this respect, at least, Biden’s call for war against the coronavirus is of a piece with conservatives’: It was an explicit argument to Americans to lower their expectations, to keep their heads down and trust that their leaders know best. It was also an appeal against Medicare for All, which his primary challenger, Bernie Sanders, put forward as a safety net for weary Americans who too often neglect their own health out of fear of health care costs.
“It has nothing to do with Medicare for All,” Biden shot back. “That would not solve the problem at all. We’re at war with the virus. We’re at war with the virus. It has nothing to do with co-pays or anything.… People are looking for results, not a revolution.” This argument was couched as common sense—deal with the problem in front of you—but it was the opposite. Rather than lay out an achievable but ambitious long-term goal to protect Americans, Biden is focused on an impossible and open-ended mission: victory over a virus. Affordable health care for all? There’s no time for that malarkey now, jack. Haven’t you noticed there’s a war going on?