Invasion of the Covid Metaphor by Brigitte Nerlich


As Milan Kundera said in his 1984 book The Unbearable Lightness of Being: “Metaphors are dangerous, Metaphors are not to be trifled with. A single metaphor can give birth to love.” But metaphors can also give birth to hate. They can be used to stigmatise groups of people and they can be used to attribute blame and deflect responsibility. Metaphors are double-edged social, political and cognitive tools. They need to be kept under constant surveillance, especially in pandemic times.

In my chapter  “Pandemics, Metaphors and What It Means to Be Human” for the book Being Human during Covid-19 , I looked at some prominent metaphors used by political leaders at the beginning of the pandemic. Like many (especially male) leaders around the world, the then President of the United States Donald Trump, and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson, used metaphors of war which not only mobilised people into action, but sowed division amongst people on the one hand and hampered pandemic management on the other. Both humanised the virus and dehumanised the humans affected by it. 

In my analysis, I focused especially on the metaphor of the ‘invisible enemy’ and the framing of humans and pandemic management that this metaphor invites.

Trump said for example: ‘In light of the attack from the Invisible Enemy, as well as the need to protect the jobs of our Great American Citizens, I will be signing an Executive Order to temporarily suspend immigration into the United States’. This shifts responsibility away from the President and focuses blame onto ‘others’, namely the ‘invisible enemy’ but also, implicitly, onto immigrants, those that are not ‘great American citizens’. Immigrants, in turn, had already been framed by Trump as vermin infesting America. We thus get a vicious metaphorical circle, from the virus as the invisible enemy to an infestation by immigrants, to immigrants, especially Chinese or Asian, being blamed for importing the virus and infecting great American citizens. The circle of vilification goes from virus to villain to vermin and the invisible virus turns into a visible stigma.

Another aspect of this metaphor is of course that the invisible enemy needs to be attacked and defeated. This in turn invites people to think that a similar war must be fought against immigrants and minorities. This would become clear during the June 2020 Black Lives Matter rebellion. What mattered to Trump was ‘domination’, not only of viruses, but of humans, especially humans that are other than him, such as women, immigrants, people of colour, and people with health conditions. Despite Trump losing power, this ideology persists in 2022, as we are witnessing in discussions over Roe and Wade.

Boris Johnson used the metaphor of the invisible enemy too, but also creatively adapted it when he said that virus was an ‘unexpected and invisible mugger’. The mugger metaphor framed the virus as carrying out an unexpected and unseen attack. This was, it seems, intended to counter criticisms that the UK government was, in fact, underprepared for an eventuality that could and should have been predicted. Again, as in the case of the framing in the US, the invisible enemy or mugger metaphor implies that the only appropriate thing to do is to fight it. There is no way of imagining that one should deal with the virus as a community working together and showing solidarity between group members. It rather implies that each of us alone fights a heroic fight against the enemy with no support from the state. Furthermore, as David Shariatmadari pointed out: ‘the prime minister’s idea that we “wrestle [the coronavirus] to the floor” would seem at odds with the patient, precise work that will have to be done, over many months, to keep it at bay’. The metaphor thus also side-lines science which, curiously, the government said it was ‘following’ at the time. However, one year into the pandemic, Johnson still claimed that managing the pandemic was 'like fighting in the dark against a callous and invisible enemy'!

War metaphors can be used to rally people, in a sense to ‘mobilise’ them; they can even create solidarity within some groups of people. However, behind their bullishness they can hide the fact that patient, precise and well- planned work is not being carried out by governments. They also divert attention away from government  responsibilities and focus instead on individual responsibilities, individuals who are asked to wash hands and social distance, to not ‘flood’ parks and beaches or crowd together in protest marches. It diverts attention from the impacts of austerity, from the critically underfunded healthcare system, and from the hostile environment for migrants and people of colour. Most importantly it diverts attention away from our common humanity.

Metaphors are indispensable for creating and expanding knowledge, but they can also twist and distort human understanding and the understanding of what it means to be human. Metaphors of war and conflict drive people apart and destroy shared understandings of what makes us all human. In a recent article entitled ‘How we escape capture by the “war” metaphor for Covid-19’ (which came out after the publication of this chapter), Mike Hanne has advocated that in a post-pandemic society, we might want to advocate the use of ecologically inspired metaphors that highlight empathy, interdependence, equity, and resilience, rather than war.

The edited collection in which my chapter appeared asked, amongst other things: How has the pandemic changed our understanding of what it means to be human? How has Covid exacerbated existing inequalities or created new divisions between different groups of humans? How might we rethink being human post-Covid and use these ideas for a more just, inclusive and sustainable society? Through an analysis of some prominent metaphors and their performative force, I hope I have contributed to finding some answers to these questions.

50% off (£45.99 £22.99) when you order from Bristol University Press. Use code POB 50 by midnight on 1 October 2022 at:

Robot reading books

Our work

How we understand being ‘human’ differs between disciplines and has changed radically over time. We are living in an age marked by rapid growth in knowledge about the human body and brain, and new technologies with the potential to change them.

Centres of excellence

The University's cross-faculty research centres harness our interdisciplinary expertise to solve the world's most pressing challenges.