Featured image: ‘’Romantic love is sometimes described as a journey: our relationship is at a crossroads, it’s been a bumpy road, we can’t turn back now, we decided to go our separate ways, this relationship isn’t going anywhere.’’
OPINION: If you are anything like me, you have probably been scouring the media for the latest Covid-19 announcements, developments and case numbers.
Much of the news related to the new Delta outbreak is couched in recurrent expressions: there is worry around new cases leaking into the community and the Team of Five Million is called upon once again to up its game in order to beat the virus. These expressions constitute metaphorical interpretations enlisted to describe a complex, emotional and wide-reaching situation.
Metaphors are not uncommon! Back in 1980, linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson published an entire book entitled Metaphors We Live By, whose very title endorses their idea that metaphors are prevalent in all linguistic exchanges, and that we cannot in fact communicate without them.
According to cognitive linguists like Lakoff and Johnson, language is embodied, which means that we use our body’s experience of basic sensations (touch, taste, smell, sight, hearing) to make sense of more complex and abstract notions, such as love, arguments and even mathematics.
For example, romantic love is sometimes described as a journey: our relationship is at a crossroads, it’s been a bumpy road, we can’t turn back now, we decided to go our separate ways, this relationship isn’t going anywhere. Arguments are described in relation to war: she demolished his argument, he defended his points, she fiercely attacked his theory. Ideas are food: his idea was half-baked but she sure swallowed it up.
So what metaphors are we using to talk about Covid-19? Like other nations, New Zealanders make use of at least two well-established metaphor patterns. First, there is the Covid-19-as-war metaphor: we need to fight the virus, our best weapon against Covid-19 is lockdown, we want to beat the virus.
Covid-19, and more recently the change to Delta – presumably in order to signal key differences associated with this new strain – is being conceptualised as a common enemy whom we must conquer and stamp out. Delta takes on human characteristics in these metaphors, or at least, animate ones (only animate beings can fight back).
Then there is also the Covid-19-as-journey metaphor: the course of the pandemic, the beginning of lockdown, the end of transmission, infection numbers are expected to peak at a certain point. These metaphors signal a temporal dimension to the pandemic.
We are like travellers on a path, which will see us hit various bumps (more, and then fewer, infections) and potentially, some turns and twists (a move through the various levels of lockdown), but ultimately, we hope to reach our destination (eliminating the virus).
The metaphor sets up an expectation that this journey will take its course, unfolding over a given period, so we need to be patient and allow it to pass.
One interesting metaphor we see in New Zealand media which I have not seen elsewhere is the Covid-19-as-sport metaphor. The Team of Five Million is reminiscent of an organised sports team, such as the All Blacks or the Black Caps, in which the country is compared to a competing team. Similarly, the call to up its game conjures images of a sporting context.
Given the importance that Kiwis attach to sport and our image as a sporting nation, which has been evident through the recent Olympic and Paralympic Games, it seems fitting to imbue the Covid-19 discourse with a connection to something which New Zealanders may embrace and feel positive about.
If we, as a small Team of Five Million can punch above our weight by winning World Cups and Olympic medals, perhaps we can also beat Covid-19!