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Developing a Vaccine Against War

What if the vaccine that’s eventually developed is so large in scope it includes the words of UN Secretary-General António Guterres and Pope Francis?

I revisit Guterres’ words of a week ago: 

The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war. That is why today, I am calling for an immediate global ceasefire in all corners of the world. It is time to put armed conflict on lockdown and focus together on the true fight of our lives.” We must, he said, “silence the guns; stop the artillery; end the airstrikes . . . to help create corridors for life-saving aid. To open precious windows for diplomacy.

And several days later, the pope, delivering his weekly blessing not from St. Peter’s Square but from the papal library, called on the world to “stop every form of bellicose hostility and to favor the creation of corridors for humanitarian help, diplomatic efforts and attention to those who find themselves in situations of great vulnerability.”

My heart, hearing such pleas, cries: what if . . . what if . . .what if?

What if idealism were the essence of human politics, not its scapegoat? What if war and xenophobia were understood to be not business as usual, the equivalent of self-defense and always necessary (at least when we do it) and thus something to be funded without question — year after year, decade after decade, century after century — but rather, the Pandemic That Doesn’t End?

Just to clarify the matter, I would make a slight amendment to the words of Pope Francis and Secretary-General Guterres: We need a global ceasefire right now not merely so that we can address, and halt, the spread of COVID-19 — after which we can go back to murder, torture, sanctions and such . . . the business of teaching our enemies their lessons and/or simply eliminating them — but rather, we need a global ceasefire because this is what we have always needed.

I would make a further clarification. “Ceasefire” sounds like a temporary halt. We need a permanent halt: to war, xenophobia, the false divisiveness of national borders. And this will not happen merely by political authorization, any more than the coronavirus can be ordered — by some powerful leader — to cease and desist its destructive impact on the human race. Just as much as we need medical vaccines, we need social vaccines.

And even as we talk about “waging war” on COVID-19, that is not what is going to work. Remember all the wars we’ve waged over the last half century or so? We’ve waged a war on drugs, cancer, crime and poverty — even obesity, for God’s sake. And, oh yes, terror. Indeed, evil itself. How did those wars turn out?

“In America in my lifetime, war has not been a vehicle for positive outcomes, but for normalizing a particular kind of process in which a White House’s caprices and a populace’s complacency expand indefinitely,” Adam Weinstein wrote recently at The New Republic. He makes note of Joe Biden’s dismissal, in his latest debate with Bernie Sanders, of Medicare for All as crucial in dealing with COVID-19.

“It has nothing to do with Medicare for All,” Biden declared. “That would not solve the problem at all. We’re at war with the virus. We’re at war with the virus. It has nothing to do with co-pays or anything. . . . People are looking for results, not a revolution.”

Weinstein writes:

This argument was couched as common sense — deal with the problem in front of you — but it was the opposite. Rather than lay out an achievable but ambitious long-term goal to protect Americans, Biden is focused on an impossible and open-ended mission: victory over a virus. Affordable health care for all? There’s no time for that malarkey now, jack. Haven’t you noticed there’s a war going on?

In other words, Biden was calling for the opposite of a ceasefire. He seemed to be revving up all that war requires of us, whatever that might be. His declaration of war against a virus sounded excruciatingly like George W. Bush’s declaration of war against evil, and the axis thereof. We’ll take it out with some shock-and-awe bombing. What could be simpler?

And this, precisely, is the problem with war. Before it’s a reality — fire and blood, severed limbs and collapsing infrastructure, anguish, death and hell (for some) — it’s a declaration, a call for national unity against, ta tum, The Enemy. This mixes ever so nicely with politics. A leader’s job is a lot easier if he or she has a good enemy to rally his constituents against.

“In President Donald Trump’s Oval Office address yesterday about the threats of the novel coronavirus, he went out of his way to label it a ‘foreign virus,’” Ben Zimmer writes at The Atlantic, pointing out that members of the Trump administration have routinely called it the “Wuhan virus” or “Chinese coronavirus.”

“When it comes to the popular naming of infectious diseases, xenophobia has long played a prominent role,” he writes, quoting Susan Sontag that ‘there is a link between imagining disease and imagining foreignness. It lies perhaps in the very concept of wrong, which is archaically identical with the non-us, the alien.’”

Another twist on this is that members of Team Trump, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, “have been pushing,” according to the New York Times, “for aggressive new action against Iran and its proxy forces — and see an opportunity to try to destroy Iranian-backed militia groups in Iraq as leaders in Iran are distracted by the pandemic crisis in their country.”

The irony here is savage. The calls for ceasefire are not coming from those in command of armies, who instead are looking for whatever opportunity might exist in the current crisis. Yet when I think of what will save humanity from the looming pandemic — and from everything else that endangers them, including themselves — I can see this much: Developing a vaccine requires studying and understanding the virus, not waging war against it.