The New Coronavirus As Metaphors: How to Affect People’s Action and Attitude
Susan Sontag, in Illness as Metaphor, said “Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick” (Sontag 3). When people are born in the world, they are given two opposite gifts: health and illness. No one can avoid all negatives, such as the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020. This disease is a novel type of acute respiratory illness, and it has caused a global outbreak. However, at the beginning of the outbreak, every country had different attitudes and methods for dealing with this new virus. For example, Taiwan did as much testing as possible for potential people who might carry the virus, and all testing is free for their people (Sui). At the same time, some counties did not provide those similar benefits to the people. Also, Thailand and Cambodia did not ban travelers from China, while many countries did not allow Chinese people to enter their land (Mcgregor). These various policies resulted from different geographical locations, cultures, and past experiences, as well as unique imaginations and metaphors about people with COVID-19. These disparities in beliefs are what shaped their current situation under the pandemic and will also shape the future of that lies ahead.
Imaginations and metaphors for a disease could affect people’s actions facing the disease. Sontag mentions that, at one time, tuberculosis and cancer were tantamount to hearing a sentence of death. The popular imagination of the diseases equaled “mystery” and “death.” As a result, people with tuberculosis tried to hide the identity of their disease from their families. Furthermore, doctors, patients, and the patients’ families avoided discussing the disease, such that they did not want to mention the disease by name. For example, if they said “cancer,” they imagined the patient would be sicker (Sontag 7). People with these diseases and their families had no support from the community and society, and they felt hopeless. Having mystery diseases with bad stereotypes and avoiding any conversation about them creates a negative loop in the environment. Fortunately, today, the situation of the new coronavirus is different from that. “How Bad Will the Coronavirus Get? Here Are Six Key Factors”, an article in the New York Times, provides a possibility of a positive loop to the situation. First, it raises awareness of the new coronavirus disease. Then, It breaks “mystery” through scientific data and research so people realize the new virus can be controlled. Finally, it provides some strategies to the public about how to prevent the disease, so that people do not generate bad images and do not lose their sense of control; thus, people discuss how to fight an epidemic of the novel coronavirus. In this way, the Times article invites conversation about the pandemic, in contrast to previous attitudes which stifled discussion. With all articles like this, the positive loop will make humans win this war soon.
The knowledge people gain from transparent conversations about COVID-19 will help to eliminate the name “coronavirus” as a metaphor for mysterious death. Such metaphors are often sustained by labeling. Health and illness are two labels that are used to distinguish the good from the bad, and the labels are dynamic and uncertain. To be more specific, one label of a term and a thing could be changed from illness to health. For a long time, most of the psychiatric and psychological experts considered non-heterosexuality a mental illness, and some countries even considered it a crime. But, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) removed the diagnosis of “homosexuality” from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) in 1973 (Burton). Now, most people around the world do not think homosexuality is an illness or crime. Also, the labels of a condition could be changed from health to illness. For example, today, due to the fast spread of COVID-19, most health authorities are considering people who are carrying with the coronavirus but do not show any symptoms as patients. Some researchers found that testing of “healthy” people showed them to be positive for the new virus and able to infect others. Therefore, the criteria of screening COVID-19 which doctors do are people’s travel and contact history, not whether or not they display symptoms. These examples prove that the labels or attitudes could be changed by many factors, such as times, social ethos, situations, authority. On top of that, a metaphor for a thing also can be changed, and different groups have different metaphors for one thing.
COVID-19 is a metaphor for two different ideas, depending on who is hearing the term. The New York Times article provides details about how the metaphor is seen in most countries. For example, “The risk to most people outside China remains very low, and seasonal flu is a more immediate threat” (Knvul Sheikh). Also, “Many of those who died were older men with underlying health problems” (Knvul Sheikh). These statements demonstrate that much of the public thought that the outbreak of COVID-19 only happened in China; they claimed it is just like the flu; the young would be safe, and the elderly must be careful. Most interestingly, when people who live outside China heard “the new coronavirus,” they would think of a disease which Chinese could get, an old age disease, and so on. Because of the metaphor for the new disease, most countries outside China still ignored two things. First, although the virus originated in China, globalization could result in the spread of the virus faster and easier than in the past. Second, COVID-19 is caused by a new coronavirus, and it would attack all humans in the world, not targeting certain races. Therefore, many people are suffering from the disease in various countries. Even with the abundance of information and online resources nowadays, people still forgot about the most logical and rational thing — a virus will infect anyone who is directly exposed to it, it will not care if you are Chinese or American.
In comparison, in Taiwan, which is close to China but has fewer confirmed cases than its neighboring countries, the government is controlling the outbreak of the virus. One of the reasons Taiwan has been successful is that Taiwan’s metaphor for COVID-19 is different from other countries. The Taiwanese think of the disease as an enemy to all humanity, and its prevention is like a battle. Thus, the government took many prevention methods actively and tried its best to reduce any possibility of the spread (Sui). There are several reasons why Taiwanese have different metaphors for the disease from other countries, which in turn affects their actions. First, ten years ago, Taiwan’s people suffered the outbreak of SARS because they did not get any warning information from the World Health Organization at first. At that time, the WHO even refused to provide assistance to Taiwan because of its complicated international political status (David). So, Taiwan’s government has not wanted its people to suffer again and is careful of any possible signal of the outbreak of disease. Next, the government took this issue very seriously before the department of health found any case in the country. Additionally, their Central Epidemic Command Center updates the newest information and prevention of the disease to the public every day, which raises public awareness. Most importantly, deep in their hearts, the great majority of Taiwanese have thought the outbreak is a war between humans and viruses so every citizen needs to face this virus seriously. At this time, the government of Taiwan still has been doing its best job to balance preventing the disease and interrupting people’s daily lives. To sum up, Taiwan’s different metaphor for the disease results in different actions.
Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship: in the world of the well and in the world of the sick. All things around the world affect every person; no one is immune to the negative on Earth. COVID-19 does not care about sex, age, or race, and it is attacking as many more people as possible. Now, the number of deaths has been increasing around the world day by day. It is possible, however, that not all of them had to die. If humans had taken this more seriously, in the beginning, fewer may have died, and it may not have become a pandemic. Those people did not die from COVID-19; they died from the bad metaphor for the disease, which society gave. The truth is, society killed them. We, humans, are known to be the most intelligent being on this planet. Given that history has taught us the paths that will lead to a dead-end and those that might lead towards prosperity and peace, it is time for us to reexamine our metaphoric thinking and maximize the possibilities to ensure we get the future that we all wish to pursue.
Burton, Neel. “When Homosexuality Stopped Being a Mental Disorder.” Psychology Today. 18 September 2015
Cyranoski, David. Taiwan left isolated in fight against SARS. Nature 422, 652 (2003). https://doi.org/10.1038/422652a
Knvul Sheikh, Derek Watkins, Jin Wu and Mika Gröndahl. “How Bad Will the Coronavirus Outbreak Get? Here Are 6 Key Factors.” The New York Times. 2020.
Mcgregor, Grady. “Coronavirus forces China’s neighbors to make tough choices over health, fear and trade.” 2020.
Sontag, Susan. Illness as Metaphor. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978.
Sui, Cindy. “What Taiwan can teach the world on fighting the coronavirus.” 2020.