The Metaphorical Virus

Illustrated by Angela Chen

Metaphor is a strong tool in discourse. Linking seemingly unrelated concepts, it weaves a net of knowledge that facilitates understanding and sparks up insights at its nodes. However, in a context that requires objectivity, the net can lead us astray. It distracts us from the simplest facts and fogs our perception and judgments. As early as the medieval period, diseases have been part of this network, and the current COVID-19 pandemic is not an exception. Related metaphors, inconspicuous like the diseases themselves, exert their power on our minds and cause unwanted influences.  

In Illness as Metaphor (1978), Susan Sontag analyses the metaphorical meaning of diseases, especially cancer and tuberculosis. As a sufferer from cancer, Sontag is clearly aware of the harm inflicted by stereotypes and fantasies about an illness. She argues, “illness is not a metaphor, and that the most truthful way of regarding illness – and the healthiest way of being ill – is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking.” She also acknowledges the ubiquity and inevitability of metaphors, which are the results of humans’ abundant creativity and imagination. But resistance to metaphoric thinking is possible, and the awareness of its existence is a barricade. Sontag dedicated her book to an “elucidation of those metaphors” and thus, “a liberation from them.”  Similarly, this article is an attempt to unveil the hidden metaphors about contagions and examine the case of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that is devastating the globe and reshaping the world. 

Contagion as Metaphor

In the fourteenth century, the bubonic plague, also known as the black death, wiped out more than one-third of the European population. With little idea of how the disease was transmitted, people in the Middle Ages believed that the plague represented divine wrath and spread via “miasma” or “bad air.” The religious connotations directed the blame at the Jews and foreigners, inciting rife persecution and, the worst of all, religious pogroms, in which communities after communities were murdered (1). 

Even as the scientific explanation of contagion emerged, its metaphorical meaning had only become increasingly complex and diverse, and the sinister rhetoric of blaming minorities and foreigners continues to encroach upon logic and reasons. As early as the sixteenth century, physician-poet Girolamo Fracastoro of Verona proposed that indirect contact could cause infection via “Fomes” or “seeds of disease.” Between then and the late nineteenth century was a period of industrialism, immigration and cultural exchange. Intriguingly, cultures share many similarities with contagion. For example, like contagions, cultures are communicated (or spread) from person to person unconsciously or consciously. These similarities strengthened the association between contagion and cultures or people, especially immigrants and minorities who were regarded as “outsiders and outcasts.” Serious implications manifested in politics and ethics, and, in turn, politically and morally charged metaphors have become ubiquitous in literary and media narratives. Furthermore, modern consumer culture breeds “sensationalist rhetoric” and “dramatic symbolism,” which magnify the influence of metaphors. For example, during the Ebola outbreak in 2014, a chyron of the CNN news read “Ebola: ‘The ISIS of Biological Agents?’.” This unecessary association with terrorism certainly attracts attention, but it sensualizes a disease and distracts the public from understanding the virus in a biological and factual perspective. This is not a singular phenomenon, and the problematic linkage between terrorism and pandemic continues to exist.

The malign stigma of disease and the hostility toward minorities have not disappeared as advanced biological science took hold in society after the nineteenth century. Rather, inherent biases in knowledge and theories reinforced the stigma and justified hostility (2). Unlike notorious eugenics in the twentieth century, connotations of contagion, just like the virus, are more implicit and unconscious, but they are just as powerful. In the 1880s, the identification of microorganisms as agents of diseases led to a rise of military metaphors. For example, bacteria are said to “invade” or “infiltrate,” and the body responds with its own immunological defenses. These choices of words evoke a sense of aggressiveness and otherness. The inherent characteristics of contagions lay the foundation for war-related metaphors in medical and social discourse. The spread of a contagion is often portrayed as an invasion by a foreign enemy, and this narrative fuels the declaration of war against the disease and backs up the aim of “identifying” and “eradicating” it. The metaphors also suggest a duality of winning and losing, making people susceptible to unrealistic optimism and pessimism. Combined with the close association between certain people and the contagion, war metaphors are very pernicious, as they influence our opinions on the sick and evoke verbal and physical attacks on actual people.

The Case of COVID-19

Sontag (1978) argues in Illness as Metaphor, “Any important disease whose causality is murky, and for which treatment is ineffectual, tends to be awash in significance.”  Similar to tuberculosis and cancer, SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that arose in December 2019, also falls into this category. Despite the rapid identification of the virus and the wave of booming research, many questions remain unknown. Its ability to travel through air and to launch an infection is still debatable, and new information such as its asymptomatic transmission has just come to light through ongoing research (3). The uncertainty surrounding its infectious abilities has caused divergent opinions among experts, which has led to the public receiving mixed signals and different safety suggestions (3). But the research effort in developing an antidote has paid off: 63 days after the viral genome was sequenced, Moderna developed an experimental vaccine. However, as of April 16, it is still at the Phase 1 trial, and subsequent trials need to be carried out to further evaluate its safety and efficacy. Even if the vaccine proves to be safe and effective, there are challenges in manufacturing this unconventional RNA vaccine (4). Mysteriousness and danger of this virus breed anxiety and fear in the public, and such a disease is prone to metaphorical interpretations and their grave implications.

The most prominent influence is the discrimination resulted from the virus. Driven by fear, certain groups of people and practices are highly stigmatized and scapegoated (5), such as people of Asian descent and wearing masks in current COVID-19 pandemic. In France, one Vietnamese woman reported that a car driver shouted to her, “Keep your virus, dirty Chinese!” and sped away through a puddle, splashing her (6). This is only a minor incident among the countless verbal and physical aggression inflicted on people with Asian descent. Naming SARS-CoV-2 as the “Chinese Virus” in social media and official settings is thus, extremely dangerous and problematic. It cements the conception that Chinese people, and people with East Asian appearances in general, are inherently diseased, inciting more conflict between individuals, cultural groups and nations. It could potentially harm international collaboration, which is highly critical in a pandemic. 

Moreover, regarding the patients (“the people”) as the representation of the virus leads to underestimation of the real gravity of the situation. Especially at the early stage of local transmission, confirmed cases can be only the tip of an iceberg. Even though they are successfully contained, the virus can go undetected. On February 27, there were only 15 cases in the United States. 

On the same day, displaying a chart indicating the United States preparedness for a pandemic, President Trump claimed, “we’re prepared like we have never before…one day —it’s like a miracle—it will disappear.” 

Besides showing underestimation and optimism, his commentary represents a sense of exceptionalism and superiority. But such a belief will not automatically grant the country immunity to an infectious disease. 

Science writer Ed Yong commented,“And I do wonder if that propensity to think of [the U.S.] as being truly exceptional, that slight hubris, left it more unprepared than it needed to be.”

Narratives around the spread of contagion are susceptible to war-related diction and metaphors, and COVID-19 is not an exception. In the New York Times article, “Its Coronavirus Cases Dwindling, China Turns Focus Outward,” words such as “blitz,” “diplomatic offensive,” “battleground” and “combat” paint the offering of medical assistance to other countries as highly aggressive and the pandemic as conflict between nations and ideologies. But in reality, the pandemic is a global phenomenon, and SARS-CoV-2 is a virulent natural agent that is trying to survive and reproduce but is dangerous to human health. Similar portrayal, however, undermines our sense of solidarity as human beings. Moreover, war metaphor also abets irrational and ignorant behaviors. Defying experts’ warnings to attend large gatherings and downplaying physiological vulnerabilities are considered as “brave” actions, while staying at home is an “ignoble retreat.” A woman posted a video of an evening gathering on St. Patrick’s Day and chose the caption “Downtown Nashville is undefeated.” Similar metaphors of terrorism exacerbate such ignorant bravado. As an inadequate metaphor, terrorism shares nothing in common with COVID-19 except both evoking fear and mistrust. The purpose of terrorism is creating terror. Since 9/11, refusing to “live in fear” and carrying on as normal have become essential parts of “American Resilience.” However, the virus is not a man-made threat, but a natural one. It is not sentient and cares nothing about the emotions of human hosts, only their availability. Patriotic bravery evoked by declaring a war against this “invisible enemy” will not help in a pandemic but feeds into ignorance and irrationality.

COVID-19 is also highly politicized, both domestically and internationally. “…when it comes time to talk about the pandemics… you gotta get out of politics,” said President Trump in the meeting on February 27. 

But he did not get out himself: he expressed that Democrats were only busying on impeachment and exaggerating the severity of the virus. Aided by media coverage, the pandemic quickly took on political overtones. Multiple surveys have found a partisan divide in opinions about the severity and response to the pandemic. An ongoing analysis of the partisan politics of COVID-19 reveals significant differences in behaviors and attitudes between self-identified Republicans and Democrats. The latter are more likely to wash hands more, avoid gatherings and agree that there is not enough testing. Partisanship not only influences individual behaviors but also state measures according to the affiliation of the governor. A working research by Adolph et al. found that Republican governors were generally less likely to execute strict restrictions. Strict measures are associated with certain political beliefs and ideologies, making people reluctant to take necessary actions or follow safety instructions. These ideas, thus, become as dangerous as the virus itself.


In “Virus as Metaphor,” Buruma wrote, “Nationalism should have no place in medical discourse. And medical language should never be applied to politics. Coronavirus isn’t Chinese or foreign; it is global.” The pandemic is a conflict between humanity and nature, not a battle between countries, cultures or ideologies. In front of nature, we share more than we differ. We have all witnessed hubris and sluggishness, experienced loneliness, anxiety and grief. But we have also seen devotion, creativity and love. Crisis brings out the worst of us and the best of us. 

Just as Yong said in the interview, “The periods of great social upheaval carry with them great risk and tragedy, but also great potential.” 

In his speech on European Conference of Science Journalists, Oliver Lehmann said, “The role of journalists in this situation? A voice of reason, not a scream of excitement.” Media should be more aware of its power and influence on the public and deliver truthful information. On Fresh Air, Gross and Yong used the word “take off” rather than “originate” when mentioning China and SARS-CoV-2. The surprising subtlety of words shows the little possibility of refraining from metaphoric thinking, but it also demonstrates that resistance can be achieved. For us, as the audience, the ability to reflect and discern is the only way we can manage the spread of the metaphorical virus, rather than letting it control us.

Written by: Angela Chen
Edited by: Sophia Xiao
Illustrated by: Angela Chen

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