Tsunamis, Wheels, War Chests and Foot Soldiers

Adrian Grima, Department of Maltese, Faculty of Arts

This is a time for metaphor. Crises are murky and metaphors can provide clarity and insight. They allow us to think and talk about something abstract or unclear in terms of something else we are more familiar with. And they are memorable. In Maltese, an economy is a wheel that turns. Many people can’t wait for ‘the wheels’ to start turning, “biex ir-rota terġa’ tibda ddur”. There’s no need to actually mention the economy: the conventional metaphor of “ir-rota” conveys the concept immediately. 

Screenshot 2020-04-23 at 18.09.39

It’s actually always a good time for metaphor. But more so now, as we ‘navigate unchartered waters.’ How else could we even conceptualize an ‘invisible killer’ like this ‘insidious’ coronavirus?

Minister Chris Fearne, like others abroad, has likened our health services being overwhelmed by the sheer number of COVID-19 patients to being swept away by the brute force of a tsunami. Images in our mental ‘cache” of huge waves crashing through entire villages and towns and taking everything with them are mapped onto other images of overcrowded hospital wards, unattended patients, despairing staff, makeshift morgues. 

Incidentally, on December 26, 2019, ceremonies were held to remember the 230,000 victims of the massive Indian Ocean tsunami 15 years ago. With the tragedy unfolding in Wuhan, the timing couldn’t have been more sinister.

Conjuring up catastrophic tsunami scenes generates emotions of deep-seated fear, helplessness, anger, and grief, and these are all mapped onto our conceptualization of overwhelmed hospital wards. Chris Fearne has used the metaphor judiciously: let’s all ‘pull the same rope’ to make sure we can ‘contain’ (you’ve no doubt heard the Superintendent of Public Health say that one) the spread of the virus. This way we can deal with a steadily flowing river and keep the threat of a tsunami at bay.

I’m not sure the Prime Minister’s choice of the ‘war chest’ metaphor when announcing the third set of economic measures to support businesses and save jobs was quite as successful. A war chest is a reserve of funds used for fighting a war, but also ‘a sum of money used for conducting a campaign or business’. This was the PM’s second definition after initially describing it as a box of ammunition and arms carried by the individual soldier. The war chest he was referring to was the financial resources the government had just put on the table to support businesses and save jobs.

Less than two weeks before, the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, had announced a ‘war chest of loans to protect businesses against the financial difficulties caused by the coronavirus’. Hail the wonders of Googling. But ‘War Chest’, according to its official promotion, is also ‘an ancient game, newly rediscovered and presented as it would have once been gifted to the sons and daughters of kings, as a way for them to learn battlefield strategy.’ The war chest metaphor comes with a bit of baggage.

We’ve all used the war metaphor, I suppose. Rishi Sunak literally referred to Britain’s travails in World War II and TVM did a feature about Malta in the War by way of contrasting it to the ‘other war’ we are fighting now. Comparisons can be odious. And metaphors are essentially comparisons. 

Interviewed by The Guardian, the BBC reporter Fergus Walsh who has recently been reporting from an ICU in London, was cautious: “I have used military metaphors. I do think we are in a war against the virus; the ICUs are the frontline in that war. But I don’t think fights should be assigned to people. If someone dies, they haven’t lost a battle, they’ve been killed by a disease.” Metaphors can be powerful tools and they need to be used carefully.

Talk of soldiers and COVID-19 reminds me of those other uncelebrated soldiers in recent Maltese public discourse: the antibody army that seeks out foreign bodies such as viruses and bacteria and marks them for destruction. Dr Chris Barbara and Prof. Charmaine Gauci have talked about “dawk is-suldati f’ġisimna li jiġġieldu kontra l-virus.” They are our unsung heroes in this silent, but no less insidious war. Here too metaphor intervenes to give them the visibility they deserve.


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