Why did Covid-19 emerge as humanity’s scourge? In our society, we tend to focus on particular events and occurrences – purported lab leaks, sketchy scientists, preposterous presidents, perilous pangolins, even entire countries imagined to be persons pursuing malign interests. We retrace the steps that “could have been most easily avoided” that put such agents, and all of us, in harm’s way. We look for the one smoking gun, the singled-out event, the particular error, the bad actor, the bothersome bats, whose clearly defined actions precipitated the disaster. In doing so, we tend to overlook all the processes “in which cause and effects become intertwined and mutually entangled.” At worst, such individualistic approaches entail drastic oversimplifications – and, as Antonio Gramsci argued, “To simplify means to misrepresent and falsify.”
In most media accounts, Covid-19 arrived as an unexpected problem sent to us by Nature. In alternative, increasingly well-documented interpretations, Covid-19 is but the latest, and not (yet) the most lethal, of the fatal “spill-over” sicknesses (zoonoses) originating in other animals and spreading to our species, and foremost among the drivers of these diseases is global capitalism’s transformation of the planet. Global warming sends hitherto isolated virus-bearing creatures in search of new habitats. Slashing through jungles to build mines, highways, and factory farms places humans in direct contact with new viruses; global value chains and tourism puts them in unprecedented contact with each other. Welcome to the “age of pandemics,” declares geographer Mike Davis. In this historical framework, Covid-19 is not so much a natural disaster as a social phenomenon – not the first nor the last of late capitalism’s pandemics, the consequence of a centuries-old, fossil-fuel-driven capitalist revolution whose inherent drive to accumulate more and more wealth takes priority over any consideration of its long-term consequences for the planet and its peoples.
Thus imagined, Covid-19 reveals, not limited and easily-addressed problems, but a daunting civilizational challenge. Daunting, because grasping it demands, not a play-by-play review of particular individual decisions, but a more searching and troubling reckoning with the deep-seated logic underlying them. ‘What You See Is What You Get’ was once the motto of a burger franchise, but it could also sum up all the efforts to restrict our attention to the “most exceptional… event,” to the acts of free agents and not to the structured relations undergirding, and limiting, their freedom.
These two perspectives contradict each other. One consequence of Covid-19 is likely to be an enduring clash between them. The one leads us to piecemeal reforms of a well-functioning capitalist system as it responds to a purportedly exogenous threat. The other urges us to look beyond particular happenings to the underlying relations that make them possible. In this debate over the meaning of Covid-19, the first side, sustained by ruling regimes around the world, is in a vastly superior position. Its 99-lb. structuralist adversary has, however, one trump card – the accumulating evidence that neoliberal globalism is unsustainable. And much of the clash between them will be waged through metaphors, which draw on everyday experiences and perceptions to make abstract arguments more accessible.
For Antonio Gramsci, it was impossible to eliminate metaphorical meanings from language. Instead, he urged critical moderns to pay close attention to the changing historical contexts in which some metaphors become widespread. Aristotle influentially argued that metaphor is a poetic form entailing giving something a name that belongs to something else. Much scholarship on metaphor since the 1970s has agreed with Gramsci that it should be conceptualized more broadly, as “understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another.” Metaphors are among our chief means of communicating. They are “essential to human understanding and as a mechanism for creating new meaning and new realities in our lives.” “Even our deepest and most abiding concepts – time, events, causation, morality, and mind itself – are understood and reasoned about via multiple metaphors,” argues George Lakoff, and over the past half century, an influential school has emerged that regards metaphor as a “fundamental part of human conceptual systems and not just a special facet of speech and writing.” Viewing metaphor as “imaginative rationality” meant a radical expansion of the concept. By and large, many scholars in the field argue that metaphor serves as “a fundamental scheme of thought serving many cognitive, communicative, and cultural/ideological functions,” many of them based on “body parts, the physical condition of the body, animals we physically interact with, physically growing things in nature, building things, game-playing activities, cooking, physical sensations, physical forces, and various bodily movements.” But, as is suggested by the title of one recent guide to metaphor studies – Raymond Gibbs’s Metaphor Wars (2017) – agreement ends there. Some critics worry that metaphor-spotting is being conflated with an adequate theory of how and why they are put to work. Those influenced by Gramsci inherited his strong resistance to analysing language use in static, ahistorical terms, preferring to see it as a a continuously changing human institution. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s claim that “metaphor is a natural phenomenon” might elicit this rejoinder from them: “Actually, it is better thought of as a historical process, one that varies radically from one social context to another.”
This is by no means a minimization of metaphor’s significance. As Lakoff himself argued in a celebrated piece in 1991, “metaphors can kill.” Typically, argues linguist Elana Semino, metaphors draw on “source domains” corresponding to “relatively simpler, more image-rich, and intersubjectively accessible experiences,” such as motion, combat, animals, or people, which are then projected onto “target domains” corresponding to more complicated experiences (life, death, time, emotions, sexuality). They are not “neutral ways of perceiving and representing reality, as each source domain highlights some aspects of the target and backgrounds others, facilitating inferences and evaluations.”
One likely reason metaphors have done so much work throughout this pandemic is that viruses, invisible to the naked eye, have been so dramatically visible in their consequences. What are these imperceptible entities? The term can be traced back to the Latin virus, meaning poison or a potent juice (whence its seemingly contradictory association with semen); it came to mean an “agent that causes infectious disease” in the late eighteenth century. The very invisibility of viruses is a standing affront to the down-to-earth empiricism pervading business-oriented societies. Until 1935, their very existence could be doubted; well beyond that, their evolutionary significance was minimized. “There are 100 billion times more viruses in the oceans than the grains of sand on all the world’s beaches,” and by one estimate the Earth may be home to 100 trillion species of them, most of them at sea. They “are likely indispensable to life on earth, by one calculation accounting for roughly 10% of photosynthesis.” Of the estimated 1.7 million viruses existing in mammals and birds, less than 0.1% have been described. They have been inextricably linked to human history for millennia. Retroviruses – the type of virus that inserts a copy of its RNA genome into the DNA of a host cell, thus changing its genome – have invaded human genomes for millions of years. Each of us :carries almost 100,000 fragments of endogenous retrovirus DNA in our genome, making up about 8 percent of our DNA.” In short, writes Zimmer, “There is no us and them – just a gradually blending and shifting mix of DNA.”
Scientists still disagree among themselves about whether viruses are even alive. They cannot grow, make their own energy, are not made of cells, are unable to maintain themselves in stable state, and lack the tools needed to copy their genes – and so, proclaimed such bodies as the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses, they are not “living organisms.” Hold on, urge other virologists: what about the recently discovered “giant viruses,” some with over 2500 genes, setting up within the amoebae they enter “a massive, intricate structure called a viral factory,” which “looks and acts remarkably like a cell”? Viruses can replicate by using host cells, deploy energy derived from their host’s metabolism, perhaps even respond to stimuli. Viruses are liminal, betwixt-and-between entities that trouble our primordial distinctions between the living and the non-living, the visible and invisible, the real and unreal. One can readily understand why metaphors about viruses have ‘gone viral’ in 2020.
Covid-19 has offered up a particularly rich harvest of metaphors, and two source domains – war and water – call out for particular attention. They both offer compelling evidence for Semino’s point that many metaphors obscure as much as they illuminate.
Almost everywhere in 2020, “war” was declared on Covid-19. For Brigitte Nerlich, the war metaphors for Covid-19 were the “go-to metaphors used in almost all reporting on infectious diseases, epidemics and pandemics.” In the US, Donald Trump anointed himself as a “war president,” and New York Magazine, evidently edited by a marine history buff, spoke of a “pirate ship lashing itself to a helpless merchantman.” Linguist and cultural theorist Sylvia Jaworska found that in the UK and US, citizens were imagined to be enduring the Blitz or challenging a foreign aggressor. In Germany, by contrast, martial images were far scarcer, since Second World War images had different connotations. One well-placed authority in Vietnam likened his country’s response to “biological warfare.” Channelling Mao, Xi Jinping’s declared a “people’s war” against the virus; in sharp contrast, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi harkened back, oddly, to the Sanskrit sacred poem Mahābhārata, at the end of which no one is left alive. France’s neoliberal President Emmanuel Macron was so fond of the metaphor that he declared war no fewer than seven times in his address to the nation on 16 March 2020.
Social critic Henry Giroux notes that the “metaphor of war” has “a long and complicated rhetorical history in times of crisis.” People sometimes use it as a way of urging government to do more for its citizens. In the US, where plans for comprehensive welfare states usually fall on deaf ears, such war talk sometimes takes the form of integrating public health with the national security state, perhaps even instituting “a special assistant to the President for biological defense.” Many in Europe hoped that a war-like emergency would elicit a new spirit of solidarity. War metaphors were famously used in appreciations of “front-line workers” – a martial figure of speech emanating from the Western Front in the First World War. By and large the “Army of the Pandemic” tends to be imagined as one made up of people with professional credentials.
War metaphors intensified the atmosphere of crisis. Covid-19 was like an “unexpected bomb falling on a peaceful town,” in the words of the mayor of Guayaquil in Ecuador, where scenes of dead bodies left in the streets recalled those reported from the Black Death in Europe. “It was as if we were attacked from the air like in Hiroshima…It was the horror of a war – there were dead in the streets, dead in homes, there were dead outside the hospitals.” Even in privileged North America, the saying that hospitals and care homes have turned into “war zones” became a commonplace. “Such scenes are shocking,” complains Patrick Cockburn, “but do not necessarily tell us much about what is actually going on.”
And war metaphors have also been widely used to help non-experts grasp something of events within the body. In 1989, Susan Sontag warned against this trend. The “controlling metaphors” drawn from war misdescribed bodily processes and stigmatized those experiencing them. Cancer cells are “invasive,” they “colonize” distant cells, and the appropriate response to them is bombardment and chemical warfare. For Liz Szabo, senior correspondent and enterprise reporter for the Kaiser Health News, immune cells protecting the body from infection “need to be “educated” to recognize bad guys – and to hold their fire around civilians.” “There’s a reason soldiers go through basic training before heading into combat,” she explains. “Without careful instruction, green recruits armed with powerful weapons could be as dangerous to one another as to the enemy.” Derek Thompson raised militarization of viral discourse to a new level when writing about vaccines in The Atlantic. He likened events within the cell to a medieval siege: “A vaccine is not just one line of immunological defense, but several – a high wall protecting a castle and, to fight the few who bypass the wall, a group of castle defenders holding vats of searing-hot tar to pour all over the invaders.”
Bodily metaphors re-enact on the microscopic level many of the values of our individualistic order. Even microbes are furiously engaged, it seems, in Herbert Spencer’s struggle of the fittest to survive. Zimmer imagines cells that oblige “an army of molecules to reorganize its contents,” building “walls” to separate chromosomes, all under the eye of “supervising proteins” monitoring the process – Fordism in miniature. When Boris Johnson fell ill, Dominic Raab continued the martial theme, describing the PM as “a fighter,” whose survival testified to the strength of his character. Similarly, Donald Trump’s recovery, assisted by medical care unaffordable for most people, was evidence of his gritty individualism: in one video, he was depicted wrestling the virus to the ground.
From the cell to society, war-like competition rules. Predictably, in a neoliberal order that, rhetorically at least, reveres rugged individuals competing with each other in a notionally free market, we have been immersed in imaginary wars for four decades. Culture wars, history wars, punctuation wars, sex wars, trade wars, and even (mysteriously) salad wars; wars on crime, drugs, illiteracy, poverty, and sexism; wars of words and nerves; war rooms of political parties in elections and entrepreneurs launching apps: it often seems moderns, at least in North America, are always at war. It is a pattern that fits within a society in which self-possessed individuals compete with each other in their unending quest for property and power, often at others’ expense. And after a day of ruthless competition with one another, what could be better than relaxing in front of a video game? In Plague Inc. (2012) – at least 85 million copies sold –players are variants of a disease competing for world domination. As cultural theorist Adam Roberts remarks, “Contemporary culture mimics contemporary society: caffeinated and sugar-high, often pepped up with drugs, our society has been so bombarded by stimulants we have developed a tolerance that can only be overcome by ever-higher stimulation. Our culture, today, is a hyperstimulant.”
Yet, it would be too easy to dismiss all the war talk around Covid-19. Much of it constitutes a metaphorical attempt on the part of ordinary people to convey hard-to-describe experiences. Humans for millennia have told themselves war stories. To a limited point – dramatizing events within cells, highlighting hardships, summoning solidarity – such metaphor-rich narratives are likely inescapable. Still, they come at a cost. Sontag thought military imagery on the bodily level “overmobilizes,… oversidescribes, and … powerfully contributes to the excommunicating and stigmatizing of the ill.” War metaphors are, if not themselves murderous (to recall Lakoff), then at least of a piece with the remarkably violent societies in which they function.
They are especially prized by those aspiring to launch Cold War 2.0. At a time when the 2021 clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists estimates we are 100 seconds away from a species-threatening catastrophe, Steve Bannon, the organic intellectual of Trumpism, joined up with exiled Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui “to fuel claims that China had developed the disease as a bioweapon and purposefully unleashed it on the world.” Unpersuasive on its own terms, the narrative does realistically suggests that biological warfare, although officially outlawed, is discretely countenanced in the name of pure research. It offers our perpetually war-like states relatively inexpensive and time-tested means of wiping out millions of enemies.
Beyond directly contributing to neoliberalism’s general climate of violent discord, war metaphors can be faulted on four further grounds. First, they perpetrate what some philosophers call a “category mistake,” ascribing properties – cunning, ambition, deviousness – to mindless viruses incapable of feeling or thinking anything. Adversaries, muggers, intruders, invaders – viruses are our enemies. In predominant black-and-white narratives, the virus is an evildoer, and all the forces arrayed against it, “the scientists who develop the vaccines, the companies that manufacture them and the governments that pay for it all,” are good. We imagine microbes somehow relishing the havoc they create. One can understand this anthropomorphizing impulse. “We prefer an enemy with a face to a faceless one,” remarks Adam Roberts. “We want to feel we can fight back, even if the fight is impossible, like homeowners shooting guns at the hurricane they know is rolling in to destroy their home.” Microbes inside our bodies are not engaged in anything “sinister or premeditated” – they are merely following “the instructions of their own genetic blueprint.” Still, we persist in mis-categorizing them as swashbuckling pirates or brutal muggers, not entities carrying on doing they have been doing for millennia.
Above all, it is important viruses be outsiders – invaders of our bodies, terrorists threatening our homelands. Bram Ieven and Jan Overwijk note that, in the mainstream imagination, the virus must not only be evil, but “an outsider, an intruder or even an invader that threatens the modern society from which it is essentially distinct,” a bioterrorist “who temporarily yet radically disrupts ‘our way of life.’” All such metaphors are inapposite if, as Zimmer explains, “There is no us and them – just a gradually blending and shifting mix of DNA.” As David Runciman suggests, speaking of climate change, “there is no clear enemy in view (the enemy is us.)”
If the targets of these metaphors are ill-chosen, one could say the same thing about the martial sources upon which they draw. Many misremembered moderns wars as the romantic adventures that enlivened many childhoods. Some Americans thought of George Washington inoculating his troops against smallpox (usually forgetting to add that he nonetheless failed to conquer Québec). A romanticized Second World War was a popular source of metaphors. In one tasteless Canadian editorial, the Manhattan Project and the “miracle weapon” it created (a.k.a. the atomic bomb) offered an inspiring example of what brave scientists, who “didn’t just shelter in place,” could accomplish. Libby Emmons, right-wing writer at the Post Millennial, used the war metaphor to blame the deplorable boomers for lockdowns, “the most selfish act of the most selfish generation,” part of their nihilistic agenda of attacking “their parents’ morality, religion, tradition, institutions, and anything else they could get their hands on.” What a contrast between these snivelling spoiled brats and the valiant stoics of the 1940s, the “greatest generation!” Mollie Ziegler Hemingway looked back to the Cold War: “Americans put a man on the freaking moon, landed a robot on a postage size stamp of land on Mars, harnessed the power of the atom, defeated Germany in a world war – twice, invented the automobile, and defeated gravity and invented human flight. Yet right now many of us are sitting alone in our homes behind cloth masks with dubious protective qualities thinking about banning children from attending school even though they are at extremely low risk of infection or as vectors of transmission.” She concludes: “We need a steely resolve, not simpering fear. Nothing is going to stop us. Not polio, not Nazis, not gravity! Nothing. We’re America. We can do this.”
For many in this camp, history is (or should be) the story of Great Men Doing Great Things, defying collectivism, safeguarding liberty, winning battles. Many politicians sought star billing as reincarnations of Churchill, remembered simplistically as freedom’s staunchest friend. Boris Johnson’s “cod-Churchillian” rhetoric dwelled upon Britons’ heroic sacrifices and also implied that dissent was disloyal.  In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo, drawing on both Churchill and FDR, was plainly interested in crafting a pandemic narrative in which he figured as an heroic leader. Here was “America’s Governor” (U.S. News), a “social media superstar” (Politico) and even a sex symbol: “Andrew Cuomo’s nipples take our minds off coronavirus” (New York Post), while over at the New York Daily News one wrote of the “Cuomosexuals.” His press conferences were so inspiring they won him an Emmy. As his American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the Covid-19 Pandemic tells us, “Washington, Lincoln, FDR, JFK – these were great men made for the moment, or the moments made these men great.”
Throughout the world, one found many strongmen yearning to become legends. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro channelled Mollie Hemingway in his passionate critique of those “sissies” who overlooked the reality that “all of us are going to die one day.” Vladimir Putin insisted that a “woman is a woman, a man is a man, a mom is a mom, and a dad is a dad,” en route to linking the LGBTQ community to “new strains” of the virus. In the case of Donald Trump, the viral enemies to be kept at bay were undocumented migrants threatening to unleash a “perfect storm,” overwhelm the healthcare system, and undermine national security. On 5 October 2020, he stood a White House balcony after being treated for Covid-19 and dramatically removed his mask as a visual image of his triumphant masculinity – for rightists had come to interpret masks as “submissions sacks” unworthy of rugged individuals.
Such martial metaphors worked their age-old, rally-around-the-flag magic through much of 2020 – until they didn’t. The sheer chaos of British and American response made a mockery of the suggestion either country was being led by a strategic genius. In the words of Paul Weindling, rousing calls to remember the Blitz and Dunkirk suggested “the current resort to that beleaguered period is a sign of things going awry. A patchwork of historical metaphors poorly hides defects in provision and planning as Britain vegetates in its prolonged lockdown.”
As historians of 1914-18 might have reminded the would-be Napoleons, bombast wears thin as casualties mount up. The wars we learned about as children generally had clear-cut beginnings, middles, and ends – a declaration of war, well-defined dramatic battles, victory parades. The wars fought since 1914, despite the best efforts of their romanticizers, have usually been far messier. They drag on and often end inconclusively. “Wars” on viruses are likely to be even worse. Efforts to make them conform to our schedules have proved unavailing: Sars-CoV-2 evolves regardless of our hubristic sense it should take a break for Christmas. As 2021 passed into 2022, any “clear-cut” victory had become “more and more elusive.”
War metaphors boomeranged back on the many enthusiasts who had launched them. Sexual harassment allegations drove Cuomo from office and he lost his Emmy; his reputation for leadership was further tarnished by accounts of his covering-up of nursing home deaths. Trump was defeated, in large part because his Napoleonic ambitions were misaligned with his modest accomplishments.
Such would-be Napoleons were intent on drumming up what one scholar has aptly termed “disaster nationalism” – a third critical point about war metaphors. Some observers were reminded of interwar Fascism. If not exactly Fascist – some crucial ingredients seem to be missing – such authoritarianism might be considered “Fascism-adjacent.” Lockdowns, vaccine mandates, test-trace-and-isolate protocols – all could be defended with down-to-earth arguments about public safety. Yet, as Naomi Klein intimated in The Shock Doctrine, provisional solutions to emergencies tend to become permanent strategies of the powerful. “Because this is after all a war” becomes a sovereign argument for declarations of “states of exception” that would have warmed the heart of Nazi Carl Schmitt, who in Political Theology declared that sovereignty is vested in the person “who decides on the [state of] exception.” The liberal NGO Human Rights Watch estimated in February 2021 that at least 83 governments had clamped down on political discussion.
Also Fascism-adjacent was the content of the nationalism to which authoritarian rulers contributed. The virus was not only imagined to be foreign to humanity, but Covid-19 was routinely linked to those considered foreigners. Syphilis in the early modern Europe was the “French pox” to the English, the Naples sickness to the Florentines, and the Chinese disease to the Japanese. HIV-AIDS likely originated in sub-Saharan Africa, but in the Americas, Haitians were often blamed for it. That is a reminder that somewhat comical attempts to ‘nationalize’ global diseases like Covid-19 can have far-from-comical results. Such conflations of a virus and particular nationalities implicitly conceptualize human beings as so many pollutants and, as Sontag reminds us, “a polluting person is always wrong.” The details varied from country to country, but many essentials remained the same: would-be strongmen mobilizing powerful imagery to solidify their power blocs, often made up of people with contrasting and even conflicting interests. Fear of outsiders, whether viruses or various defined minorities, provided a glue to keep such blocs together. In Narendra Modi’s India, a “Coronajihad” campaign sought to link Covid-19 to Muslims. In hyper-militarized Israel. the state’s early-2021 vaccine campaign deliberately excluded the 4.7 million Palestinians in the West Bank and the blockaded Gaza Strip, despite international law declaring an occupying power responsible for caring for the health of people under its occupation. In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan combined praise of his country’s health system with warnings against the Armenian and Greek lobbies, “leftovers of the sword” (i.e., survivors of the massacres that followed the fall of the Ottoman Empire.) In France, a resurgent right finds inspiration in Marine Le Pen, who blames “bacterial immigration” for Covid-19. (Virology is evidently not her strong suit). Throughout much of North America, those of Chinese descent walked warily. As the meme of the “China virus” spread, so did anti-Asian violence.
And fourth, war talk offers sanctuary to leaders reluctant to probe Covid-19’s complex causes, many of them tied directly to the very transnational patterns of resource exploitation and trade they are in the business of defending. Our emerging ‘Age of Pandemics’ calls upon honest researchers to reckon with the drastically transformed and far more interconnected world that global capitalism has wrought and to reconceive humankind’s relationship with the rest of the natural world. These are problems difficult to grasp in a framework focused on individuals and naively persuaded that ‘the science’ offers certainties.
Lea Ypi, drawing attention to Boris Johnson’s declaration that we must “wrestle the virus to the floor,” argues that once this framing became lodged in the public consciousness, we started to imagine the fight against Covid-19 as one waged between individuals and the virus, turning the struggle into a matter of personal virtue rather than systemic failure.” Speaking in October 2020 to a virtual conference of his Conservative Party, Johnson proclaimed that “free enterprise” must “lead the recovery.” In this vision, unfettered capital will continue to roll on to its conclusion, into a future containing many more pandemics. There will not be, and in this framework cannot be, any questioning of the “triumphalist hubris to which our species is prone.”
Instead we are asked to trust our leaders to help us navigate the “waves” of the pandemic, another omnipresent metaphor of the day. The media were awash with them. Based initially on data from influenza pandemics in 1889-92 and 1918-19, the “waves” have since attained a status many epidemiologists doubt they really deserve: “a wave is just a metaphor,” laments one. “Disease waves aren’t scientifically defined,” adds another.
For all the uncertainties surrounding their reality status, ‘waves’ have been immensely influential as people have tried to find a pattern in the troubling events all around them. They have been captured in countless graphs, whose curves entire populations have been counselled to “flatten.” Such graphs are “neat, clean, and familiar,” working to reduce contradictions and tensions to precise lines making memorable images. They help convince us that, somewhere, someone is in charge. Naïve belief in the “omnicompetence of science” combines with the expectation that our leaders are following it. A “near-fetishism” with respect to the “so-called exact or physical sciences” has meant those channelling their expertise are also admired. And the metaphor encourages us to imagine rhythmic natural processes over which human beings have no control. If viruses are like ocean waves, they beat down as external visitors upon our shores. “We must be… alert to the sovereignty of the evolutionary tide,” proclaimed one scientist in the late twentieth century. Decades later, humans trembled in anticipation of the Omicron “tsunami.”
The wave metaphors seemed almost unavoidable. They captured many people’s sense of being in a situation beyond their control. Yet the risk of them is twofold. On the one hand, they entrench a dualistic interpretation of humankind as separate from, and presiding over, the universe we inhabit. On the other, they encourage a stance of quasi-religious reverence before the Sublime, i.e., mesmerizingly unfathomable forces far beyond our control. Rather like meteors hitting the planet or earthquakes transforming its surface, pandemics just happen. Paradoxically, then, such metaphors contribute both to reverence for heroes capable of ‘riding the waves’ (charismatic scientists and all-wise leaders) and a fatalistic sense that nothing about those waves is affected by humanity. All such naturalistic metaphors work to acquit the leaders of our social order with any responsibility for the events unfolding all around them. Here, said the esteemed neoliberal Thomas Friedman, was “Mother Nature” rewarding those who understood how to bend with “her” forces. And “Nature’s” advice was, unsurprisingly for this organic intellectual of the ruling order, a strategy of “herd immunity,” a form of “epidemiological neoliberalism” that would have gladdened the heart of Spencer himself.
Wars and waves and wrestling matches: the 2020s mean metaphor after metaphor. As Nerlich points out, we have also had storms (perfect or otherwise) and plagues, with extra points surely deserved by the person who proclaimed, “Forget black swans” (i.e., highly improbable but highly consequential events). “We’re getting run over by two gray rhinos.” Some writers experimented with the metaphors of traffic. We even have “glitter” as a metaphor for Covid-19, in the sense that it “gets everywhere.” Fires have many fans. Such profusion bears out Gibbs’s claim that, however dominant officially-sanctioned metaphors may appear, they can be supplanted by “conceptual metaphors that better meet with our needs and goals.”
The metaphors we need should combine respectful attention to the largely-unexplored virosphere we inhabit with a sense that interactions with that virosphere are influenced by humanity’s collective intelligence – or should be. Robin Marantz Henig introduces us the “dancing matrix.” She likens “the viral genome” to a “chromosomal square dance caller, prompting the occasion genetic do-si-do.” Her dance metaphors target the microscopic. Might they also target the social? That would draw us away from us-versus-them war-like representations of cruel aliens towards ideals of rational interaction throughout the natural world. Rather than staunch commanders or helpless victims, humans could be figured as dancers just learning the difficult steps entailed in inhabiting a shared planet. Alternatively, Karl Marx’s mid-nineteenth-century “metabolic metaphor” captures even more dynamically a dialectic of structure and agency that illuminates “the concrete ways in which the contradictions of capital accumulation are generating ecological crises and catastrophes.”
Or, in good company, we might also imagine paths winding through mountains. Both Toby Ord and Noam Chomsky, working within radically different paradigms, put forward “The Precipice” as a master metaphor for our situation. Ord ranks pandemics among other species-threatening tendencies – artificial intelligence, thermonuclear war, resource depletion – that have led humanity to the brink. Chomsky more directly deploys the metaphor to describe the perilous path down which an “ideology of business supremacy” has pushed humanity.
In the last century, the great French historian Marc Bloch told the story of a shepherd who fell from a mountain path. The explanation for his mishap seemed obvious: he tripped. No need to consider the geological forces that made the mountain, or gravity, or the socio-economic forces seasonally propelling shepherds up mountain paths: rather, we focus “the antecedent that could have been most easily avoided.” Developing Bloch’s parable, we might imagine a mishap on a road zig-zagging through mountains, with lots of falling rocks, near-zero visibility, and exhausted truck drivers. In and of itself it constitutes a landscape of risk. One could even say that the “context is causality,” suggests Rob Wallace, whose epidemiological researches have shone a bright light on the logic underlying such pandemics as Covid-19. Particular accidents on that road will call out for particular explanations; but the road itself might be considered “an accident waiting to happen.” Modest tech fixes (minimal guard-rails/better vaccines) might save some of these lives; immodest ones (a comprehensive global health system) many more. But a permanent solution would entail a social order whose revolutionary premise is the subordination of economic imperatives to human well-being. In the meantime, we proceed in a vehicle guided by exhausted and near-blind drivers on a pot-holed road that makes no concessions either to the landscape it traverses or the drivers required to drive on it. And ahead looms a chasm. It’s not a perfect metaphor – there are no perfect metaphors – but at least it suggests that, deep in the mountains of an unending pandemic, even as the obfuscating fogs of war descend, we need to visualize other ways than driving ever-faster on a rock-strewn and perilous winding way, speeding towards the very edge of civilizational collapse.
 Thanks to poet Don McKay for his wise counsel. Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft: Reflections on the Nature and Uses of History and the Techniques and Methods of Whose Who Write It, trans. Peter Putnam (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1953), 191.
 Antonio Gramsci, Further Selections from the Prison Notebooks, trans. and Derek Boothman (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995), 219; Q15§5.
 It has been a structural characteristic of historical of Covid-19 to sideline HIV-AIDS, yet this latter pandemic, which rapidly expanded in the 1980s on the basis of modest beginnings in the 1920s, has not only coincided with it but accounted for far more human deaths and suffering. Removing HIV-AIDS from the narrative plays into a “perennialist” interpretation (pandemics happen every so often in most centuries) rather than a “developmentalist” one (as global capitalism has entrenched radically heightened degrees of human interconnection since the 1970s, zoonoses of all descriptions have become far more prominent).
 Mike Davis, “Marxism in an Age of Catastrophe,” Monthly Review On-line, 23 April 2020; https://mronline.org/2020/04/23/marxism-in-an-age-of-catastrophe-capitalism-created-an-era-of-plagues/.“We’re entering a new pandemic era,” proclaims the controversial disease specialist Peter Daszak. Peter Daszak, “We are entering an era of pandemics – it will only end when we protect the rainforest,” Guardian, 28 July 2020; Link to source.
 Perhaps one close parallel to this twenty-first-century debate will be the debate over cigarette smoking, which for decades, many in the tobacco industry privately realized was bad news for lungs, yet publicly fought public policies aimed at curtailing addiction and lung cancer, often by querying correlations held insufficient to provide sound scientific evidence of causation. See Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Climate Change (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2010). Twenty-first century contentions that Covid-19 and kindred zoonoses are linked to corporate-driven climate change will be even more fiercely opposed because they call into question not one sector of the economy but its underlying logic.
 There are dozens of metaphors in the present essay. A good many of them are “dead metaphors” – as Gramsci pointed out, one can use the term “disaster” without reliance on astrology (though the sixteenth-century disastro denoted an “ill-starred” event (Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks [SPN], ed. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971), 452; Q11§24). One scholar finds that metaphors occur between three and eighteen times per 100 words: Elena Semino, “‘Not Soldiers but Fire-fighters’ – Metaphors and Covid-19,” Health Communication 36, 1 (2021), 51, 52, 54, 55; Link to source) (which puts my metaphor-heavy paragraphs high up on her metaphor index (which is yet another metaphor!)
 SPN, 452.
 Aristotle, Poetics, 1459a; for discussion, see George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2003 ), 189.
 George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2003 ), 5.
 Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors, 195-6.
 Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors, 245.
 Raymond W. Gibbs, Metaphor Wars: Conceptual Metaphors in Human Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 262.
 Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors, 193.
 Gibbs, Metaphor Wars, 6; 16; 23.
 Peter Ives, Gramsci’s Politics of Language: Engaging the Bakhtin Circle & The Frankfurt School (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004), 23.
 Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors, 247.
 Semino, “Metaphors and Covid-19,” 51, 52, 54, 55.
 Carl Zimmer observes that a thousand viruses “could be lined up against a single grain of salt,” A Planet of Viruses, Third Edition (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2021), 11.
 A metaphor originating in the 1970s as the computer revolution was just getting going, now out of favour as an actual virus makes the rounds.
 Sylvia Jaworska, “Is the war rhetoric around Covid-19 an Anglo-American thing?,” Viral Discourse, 13 April 2020; Link to source. Her blog on viral discourse is an excellent resource for metaphor-hunters.
 Samaddar Ranabir, “Introduction,” to Ranabir, ed., Borders of an Epidemic: Covid-19 and Migrant Workers (Kolkata: Calcutta Research Group, 2020), 14.
 Henry Giroux, Race, Politics, and Pandemic Pedagogy: Education in a Time of Crisis. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021, 41-43.
 Gian Luca Gardini, “Introduction: A framework for both analysis and reflection,” in Gian Luca Gardini, The World Before and After Covid-19: Intellectual Reflections on Politics, Diplomacy and International Relations (Salamanca and Stockholm: European Institute of International Studies Press, 2020), 2.
 Adle Tomer and Joseph W. Kane, “To protect frontline workers during and after Covid-19, we must define who they are,” Brookings, 10 June 2020; Link to source. There were significant disagreements over who should be counted among them – all 50 million Americans the Brookings Institute estimated had to keep working in order to keep society functioning or, conversely, only the health professionals.
 Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989), 64-5.
 Zimmer, A Planet of Viruses, 36.
 The US/China “trade war” is the successor to the US/Japan “trade war” of the 1990s, preceded by countless other such wars from the founding of the Republic. Invariably, foreign ne’er-do-wells are imagined to be the enemies of North Americans striving, as true individuals should strive, to accumulate more and more stuff. A contradiction: were global value chains to be permanently disrupted or terminated in a trade war, there would be many long faces around the board rooms of Walmart and Costco.
 Adam Roberts, It’s The End of the World: But What Are We Really Afraid Of? (London: Elliot and Thompson, 2020), 88-89.
 Roberts, End of the World, 170-71.
 Sontag, Illness, 64-5.
 Katherine Eban, “The Lab-Leak Theory: Inside the Fight to Uncover COVID-19’s Origins,” Vanity Fair, 3 June 2021; Link to source. Unfortunately for them, the scientist they used to disseminate their theory proved to be manifestly unqualified to make the case.
 Researchers with the Centres for Disease Control successfully reconstructed H1N1, the virus behind the 1918-9 influenza pandemic, in 2004-5 (Link to source), over some misgivings about whether doing so was really in the interests of humanity; virologists at Stony Brook University succeeded in creating live polioviruses; another, at the University of Alberta synthesized horsepox, one of the “harmless cousins” of smallpox, for a cost of just $100,000: Zimmer, A Planet of Viruses, 120. Fort Detrick in Maryland suspended its research into deadly germs, ostensibly aimed at improving biological defence, in 2019. As many experts suggest, there is a very fine line between researching deadly viruses, sometimes in innocuously-named “gain-of-function” experiments, and anticipating their use against a future enemy.
 According to one national estimate, by August “there were nearly 5 million first-time gun buyers in the US” (Abené Clayton, “More than 100,000 Californians have bought a gun in response to Covid-19 crisis, report finds”; Link to source.) There was also a sharp increase in mass shootings, defined as those killing or injuring four or more people. (Lauren Mascarenhas, “Mass shootings in the US increased during the coronavirus pandemic, study finds,” CNN, 16 September 2021; Link to source.) In small-town Brazil, lockdown supporters and pro-lockdown politicians were targeted by arsonists, while across the country journalists complained that physical assaults on them more than doubled during the pandemic. (Gabriel Stargardter, “Threats and violence mark pandemic debate in Bolsonaro’s Brazil,” Reuters, 23 June 2021; Link to source).
 Such personification of a physical object might be judged the most obvious of ontological metaphors, which allow us “to comprehend a wide variety of experiences with nonhuman entities in terms of human motivations, characteristics, and activities.” Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, 33.
 Lewis Thomas, The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher (New York: Penguin Books, 1978), 72. He was referring to bacteria, but his point can be applied to viruses as well.
 Roberts, End of the World, 86.
 Robin Marantz Henig, A Dancing Matrix: How Science Confronts Emerging Viruses (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 58.
 Donald Trump even explicitly invoked Al Qaeda’s attack on the World Trade Center. Nicholas A. Christakis, Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live (New York, Boston and London: Little, Brown Spark, 2020), 174.
 William H. McNeill, Plagues and Peoples (New York: Anchor Books, 1998), 295.
 He was also a co-conspirator in mass death in Bengal, for which see, inter alia, Madhusree Mukerjee, Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during World War II (New York: Basic Books, 2010).
 Andrew Cuomo, American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the Covid-19 Pandemic (New York: Crown, 2020), 14.
 Andrew Cuomo, American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the Covid-19 Pandemic (New York: Crown, 2020), 14-15, 275.
 Judy Stone, “Covid-19, Brazil’s Bolsonaro, and Herd Immunity,” Forbes, 6 November 2021; Link to source; for context, see Richard Lapper, Beef, Bible and Bullets: Brazil in the Age of Bolsonaro (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2021).
 Citations from Anna Kuteleva and Sarah J. Clifford. “Gendered securitisation: Trump’s and Putin’s discursive politics of the Covid-19 pandemic,” European Journal of International Security 6 (2021), 301-317; Link to source.
 Elena Semino, “‘Not Soldiers but Fire-fighters’ – Metaphors and Covid-19,” Health Communication 36, 1 (2021), 51, 52, 54, 55; Link to source. An editorial in the Ancaster-Dundas News (6 January 2002), “On and On It Goes,” warns of weariness and declares: “It’s time to rally the troops for the next round of battles.”
 Charlie Sykes, “The Cuomo Meltdown,” Bulwark+, 25 February 2021; Link to source. “They were covering their asses by hiding the story in the midst of the pandemic,” one critic observes. “He withheld crucial data that might have helped save lives because he was afraid he might take a political hit. This is not a blunder. It is a crime.”
 For Dylan Riley, a foremost authority on Italian Fascism, the crucial difference is that contemporary neoliberalism has atomized the populace, whereas ‘classical’ Fascism could draw upon a dense matrix of institutions in civil society. Dylan Riley, “American Brumaire?”, New Left Review 103 (January-February 2017), 21-32; Dylan Riley, The Civic Foundations of Fascism in Europe, second edition (London and New York: Verso, 2019).
 Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2008).
 Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, trans. George Schwab (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006). Schmitt was of course a key political theorist of the Third Reich.
 Human Rights Watch, “Covid-19 Triggers Wave of Free Speech Abuse,” Human Rights Watch, 11 February 2021; https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/02/11/covid-19-triggers-wave-free-speech-abuse.
 Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989), 136.
 See especially Paul Farmer, AIDS and Accusation: Haiti and the Geography of Blame (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, second edition, 2006).
 In Japan, apparently, just “speaking the Japanese language” was thought by some to constitute a “barrier” against it Alexis Dudden, “Masks, Science, and Being Foreign: Japan During the Initial Phase of Covid-19,” in Scott L. Greer, Elizabeth J. King, Eliza Massard da Fonesca, and André Peralta-Santos, eds. Coronavirus Politics; The Comparative Politics and Policy of COVID-19 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2021), 53.
 Susan Sontag, \ Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989), 136.
 Political theorist Alfonso Gonzales Toribio, professor at UC Riverside, notes the salience of Gramsci’s concept of the “historic bloc,” by which he explained “the unification of a constellation of groups with opposing interests into an apparently seamless front. Such a bloc, he argued, blurs the lines between the state and society and functions to repress dissent in moments of crisis and intense labor and social-movement militancy.” Often they congeal by “demonizing their enemies foreign and domestic,” and they “don’t have to be based on truth, facts or coherent arguments.” “Never rational, such authoritarian movements are based on pure emotion and a sort of identity politics of the right, using common-sense ideas about how the world work among the working class to draw them from the left.” Alfonso Gonzales Toribio, “Trump’s ‘historic bloc’ and the crisis of liberal democracy,” Los Angeles Times, 6 October 2020; Link to source.
 Rajani X. Desai, Crisis and Predation: India, Covid-19, and Global Finance (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2020), 53.
 Mark MacKinnon, “Can Israel Keep Up Its Vaccine Pace,” Globe and Mail, 9 January 2021; Link to source. In July 2020, according to one report, “Israeli forces bulldozed a newly-built COVID-19 field hospital and test centre in Hebron in the West Bank on the grounds that it did not have planning permission.” Alan Macleod, “Saturday Night Live Controversy Hides Greater Issues Around Israeli Apartheid,” MintPress, 22 February 2021; Link to source.
 Don McKay, The Speaker’s Chair: Field Notes on Betweenity. The 2010 Pratt Lectures. St. John’s: Running the Goat, 2013.
 Stephen X. Zhang,, Francisco Arroyo Marioli, and Renfei Gao. “A Second Wave? What Do People Mean by COVID Waves? – A Working Definition of Epidemic Waves.” MedRxiv, 21 February 2021; Link to source. The authors strive give “waves” a precise definition, based on measurements of a given disease’s effective reproduction number (R). Some epidemiologists note that only inconsistent evidence supports the notion that influenza data generated statistical representations that look like waves and query the fundamental assumptions that lead people to believe such patterns exist outside the human imagination. Tom Jefferson and Carl Heneghan. “Covid-19 – Epidemic ‘Waves,’” Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine, 30 April 2020; Link to source. We leave to epidemiologists the doubtless thorny question of whether the actual movement of viruses resembles the particle-to-particle interactions analysed by physicists. Prima facie, though, it’s not easy to see the resemblance, since in the case of Covid-19, the media of the wave (i.e. human beings) are often quite transformed by the wave moving through them.
 “Flatten the curve” is a phrase coined by a medical historian in 2005 based on data from 1918-9. Ellen Amster, “History’s crystal ball: What the past can tell us about COVID-19 and our future,” The Conversation, 28 June 2020; Link to source.
 Mary Midgley, The Myths We Live By (London and New York: Routledge, 2004), xiv.
 SPN, 441; Q11§17.
 Cited, Henig, Dancing Matrix, 35.
 Philip Shaw, The Sublime, second edition (London: Routledge, 2017) provides a stimulating introduction.
 Brigitte Nerlich, “Metaphors in the time of coronavirus,” Making Science Public, University of Nottingham, 17 March 2020; Link to source. The “Black Swan” metaphor, associated with Karl Popper’s neoliberal assault on what imagined to be historicism, was revived by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (New York: Random House, 2010).
 Rather than imagining the virus as an invading army, Craig Spencer, emergency room physician, imagines it to be a motorist seeking the most expeditious route through a complicated city. “Among the unvaccinated the virus travels unhindered on a highway with multiple off-ramps and refuelling stations. In the vaccinated, it gets lost in a maze of dead-end streets and cul-de-sacs. Every so often, it pieces together an escape route, but in most scenarios, it finds itself cut off, and its journey ends. It can go no further.” Craig Spencer, “No, Vaccinated People Are Not ‘Just as Likely’ to Spread the Coronavirus as Unvaccinated People,” Atlantic, 24 September 2021; Link to source.
 Semino, “Metaphors and Covid-19,” Health Communication 36, 1 (2021), 51, 52, 54, 55; Link to source. One Canadian news report justified closing the Canada/US border because of the “dumpster fire” raging in the US; Medscape imagined Covid-19 as a “fire burning in the forest,” requiring human fuel to keep going and calling out for the cutting of preventive fire-lines; and one critic of the neoliberal herd immunity crowd likened their strategy to “protecting antiques in a house fire by putting them all in one room, standing guard with a fire extinguisher but simultaneously fanning the flames.” As always with metaphors, though, context is everything: fire metaphors for Covid-19 might be highly inappropriate in parts of the world, such as British Columbia in 2021, threatened by literal forest fires.
 Gibbs, Metaphor Wars, 152.
 Henig, Dancing Matrix, 78-9, 80. Lewis Thomas had something of the same idea: “Doing their cross-species jitterbug, viruses probably contribute to the ongoing mixing of genes within a species, allowing that species the genetic flexibility required to take advantage of opportunities for adaptation.” Lewis Thomas, The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher (New York: Penguin Books, 1978), 78-9.
 John Bellamy Foster, “Marx and the Rift in the Universal Metabolism of Nature,” Monthly Review 65, 8 (December 2013); DOI:10.14452/MR-065-07-2013-11_1.
 Toby Ord, The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity (New York: Hachette, 2020).
 Noam Chomsky with C.J. Polychroniou, The Precipice: Neoliberalism, the Pandemic, and the Urgent Need for Social Change (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2021), 61.
 Bloch, The Historian’s Craft, 191.
 The classic account is Ulrich Beck, The Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, trans. Mark Ritter (Los Angeles and London: Sage, 1992).
 Rob Wallace, Big Farms Make Big Flu (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016), 250 (emphasis added). If people studying accidents on our mountain road have been reading their Spinoza, they might even go so far as to say that the “absent cause” of a death on this road was the driver’s place in the socio-economic order, not just as “one factor” in his situation but something pervasively structuring it.