‘A fire raging’: Why fire metaphors work well for Covid-19

Covid-19 and metaphors

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, metaphors have been widely used, reflected upon and critiqued as a tool for communicating about the virus and its consequences. There are good reasons for this.

Metaphors involve talking and thinking about one thing in terms of another, on the basis of perceived similarities or correspondences between them. As such, we use them to make sense of and communicate about new, complex, abstract and sensitive experiences in terms of more familiar, simpler and intersubjectively accessible ones. For example, the virus has been described as an enemy to be defeated, a mugger to be wrestled to the ground, a tsunami on health services, a marathon to be endured, and even glitter in soft furnishings after a party.

Metaphors can become controversial because they have framing effects: each metaphor highlights some aspects of the topic and backgrounds others, and therefore influences people’s reasoning, evaluations and emotions in particular ways, as many experimental studies have shown. For example, war metaphors, which were widely used at the start of the pandemic, have been criticised for inappropriately personifying the virus as a malevolent opponent, creating unnecessary anxiety, dangerously legitimising authoritarian governmental measures, and implying that those to die did not fight hard enough. Research has shown that war metaphors can actually be useful in some contexts (for example, to convey the need for urgent collective effort), but they can also discourage self-limiting behaviours, such as refraining from our usual activities and just staying home.

As the weeks and months have gone by, and more and more metaphors have been adopted for different aspects of the pandemic, an international group of researchers (of which I am part) has been collecting alternatives to military metaphors from around the world, as part of the #ReframeCovid initiative. We know, from research in areas as diverse as education and healthcare, that a range of different metaphors is usually needed for complex topics, and the #ReframeCovid collective has taken the kind of non-prescriptive approach that is part of the professional ethos of researchers on language use: it aims to collect a wide variety of ‘naturally occurring’ metaphors as data for research and as potential resources for communication and thinking, but without endorsing one or more as better than the others.

Nonetheless, those of us who study metaphors for a living are regularly asked for an expert opinion about what metaphor or metaphors are most appropriate for the pandemic, and it is in fact possible to provide some answers on the basis of previous research on what makes a ‘good’ metaphor and of systematic analyses of communication about the unfolding pandemic. In this blog post, I explain how and why I got to the conclusion that fire metaphors, and specifically metaphors involving forest fires, are particularly appropriate and useful for communication about the pandemic.

Finding fire metaphors

My initial observations were based on the #ReframeCovid collection of metaphors, which, as of 30th June 2020, included five fire metaphors from five different languages (Dutch, English, Greek, Italian and Spanish) as well as visual images involving metaphorical flames or fires. In addition, I identified 37 different examples of fire metaphors for Covid-19 in the Coronavirus Corpus, which, at the time, consisted of about 400 million words of news articles in English from around the world, dating from January to June 2020.

[A little more detail for linguists: I searched for ‘coronavirus’ or ‘covid-19’ in a span five words to the left and five words to the right of ‘fire’ in the Coronavirus Corpus. That generated 696 concordance lines. I used the MIP procedure by the Pragglejaz Group to identify metaphorical uses of fire-related vocabulary. I included fire-related similes and other ‘direct’ metaphors. I excluded fire-related metaphors for topics other than Covid-19. In what follows, all English examples are from the Coronavirus Corpus, while examples in other languages are from the #ReframeCovid collection.]

What fire metaphors can do

Even out of context, forest fires are a suitable area of experience for metaphorical exploitation. They are vivid, or image-rich; they are familiar, even when not experienced directly; they have multiple elements (trees, fire-fighters, arsonists, victims, etc.); and they have strong evaluative and emotional associations.

In the specific data I have collected, fire metaphors are used flexibly and creatively for multiple purposes, particularly to:

  • convey danger and urgency;
  • distinguish between different phases of the pandemic;
  • explain how contagion happens and the role of individuals within that;
  • justify measures for reducing contagion;
  • portray the role of health workers;
  • connect the pandemic with health inequalities and other problems; and
  • outline post-pandemic futures.

Danger and urgency

Forest fires spread quickly, are hard to control and can therefore grow very large, causing irreparable damage. These characteristics can be exploited to convey the dangers posed by the coronavirus, and the need for urgent action. For example, in June 2020 a Pakistani minister described the coronavirus as ‘spreading like a fire in the jungle’ in the rural areas of the country, while the director of the Center for Infectious Disease at the University of Minnesota  talked about a ‘forest fire that may not slow down’. In a Spanish example from the #ReframeCovid collection, the coronavirus is described by an anthropologist as needing to be approached as ‘un gran fuego’ (‘a large fire’).

Different phases

The life cycle of forest fires can be exploited metaphorically to distinguish between different phases in the seriousness of the pandemic, in terms of numbers of new infections and success or failure in reducing those numbers. In April 2020, when new daily infections were increasing fast on Rhode Island, a New York Times article described it as a ‘a state where the coronavirus is a fire raging’. In contrast, in May 2020, the Irish Prime Minister combined fire and war metaphors when he stated that, in Ireland, the coronavirus was a ‘fire in retreat’ but ‘not defeated’, adding: ‘We must extinguish every spark, quench every ember.’

References to metaphorical embers are particularly useful to suggest that danger still persists even when the number of infections has substantially decreased.

How contagion happens

Explaining how contagion happens is a particular challenge in public health communication about the coronavirus: the process is not just invisible, but it also involves asymptomatic people and takes place during the most ordinary daily activities. There is also a fine balance to strike between persuading people to reduce the chance of being in danger, or being a danger to others, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, avoiding excessive blame on individuals. Here fire metaphors can be particularly useful.

In a semi-technical explanation in Medscape from late March 2020, people are trees that provide fuel to a forest fire driven by wind:

  1. Think of COVID-19 as a fire burning in a forest. All of us are trees. The R0 is the wind speed. The higher it is, the faster the fire tears through the forest. But just like a forest fire, COVID-19 needs fuel to keep going. We’re the fuel.

In other forest fire metaphorical scenarios, people are ‘kindling’, ‘sparks being thrown off’ (when infecting others) and ‘fuel’ (when becoming infected). In these cases, fire metaphors convey the dangers posed by people being in close proximity to one another, but without directly attributing blame: people are described as inanimate entities (trees, kindling, fuel) that are consumed by the fire they contribute to spread.

A variant of this metaphor, from March 2020, involves an urban fire:

  1. Think of the coronavirus pandemic as a fire ravaging our cities and towns that is spread by infected people breathing out invisible embers every time they speak, cough, or sneeze. Sneezing is the most dangerous—it spreads embers farthest—coughing second, and speaking least, though it still can spread the embers. These invisible sparks cause others to catch fire and in turn breathe out embers until we truly catch fire—and get sick.

Here the reference to ’invisible embers’ is a particularly vivid way to portray the danger posed by something as seemingly innocuous as breath.

How containment measures can help

The use of fire metaphors to explain how contagion happens often sets the scene for explaining how new infections can be stopped. The extract from Medscape above (extract 1), for example, where people are ‘trees’ and ‘fuel’, goes on to exploit the forest fire scenario to convey the effectiveness of quarantines and social distancing:

  1. A few fire lines—quarantines and social distancing measures—keep the fire from hitting all the trees.

Similarly, the metaphor where people breathe out ‘invisible embers’ (extract 2) is used to justify face masks as an effective measure against the spread of the virus:

  1. If we could just keep our embers from being sent out every time we spoke or coughed, many fewer people would catch fire. Masks help us do that. And because we don’t know for sure who’s sick, the only solution is for everyone to wear masks. This eventually benefits the wearer because fewer fires mean we’re all less likely to be burned. My mask protects you; your masks protect me.

Protecting healthcare workers

Within fire metaphors, healthcare workers are inevitably positioned as firefighters who ‘run into raging blazes’ for the sake of everyone else. This emphasizes the risks that healthcare workers run, and can therefore be used to stress the need to respect social distancing rules and/or wear face masks. For example, the description of the importance of face masks in extract 4 is followed by: ‘Plus, our firefighters would no longer be overwhelmed’.

Making health inequalities and other problems worse

Fire metaphors can be used to emphasize the additional vulnerability of people who live in cramped conditions. For examples, in June 2020 a South African commentator pointed out that the virus could spread particularly fast in informal settlements: ‘Look at how shack fires happen: you light one fire, and the whole place burns down.’

In a few cases, fire metaphors are used to suggest that the coronavirus is making existing problems or crises worse. In these cases, the metaphorical fire was already burning, and the coronavirus ‘add[s] fuel to the fire’ or ‘throws gasoline on the fire’, for example in the context of pre-existing tensions in US prisons.

The future

Fire metaphors can also be adapted to paint different pictures of a post-Covid-19 future. Italian commentator Paolo Costa includes a reference to the future in a lengthy forest fire metaphor:

  1. Non solo ci sono continuamente focolai da spegnere e, quando la sorte si accanisce, giganteschi fronti di fuoco da arginare, ma è dovere di tutti collaborare quotidianamente alla bonifica del terreno affinché scintille, inneschi, distrazioni più o meno colpevoli non provochino adesso o in futuro disastri irreparabili.

Not only are there constant outbreaks to extinguish and, when our luck gets worse, gigantic fronts of fire to control, but it is everyone’s duty to collaborate daily in the reclamation of the soil, so that sparks, triggers, and more or less guilty distractions do not cause irreparable disasters now or in the future.

Here the idea of collective responsibility for soil reclamation to prevent new fires suggests that lifestyles will have to change long-term in order to avoid future pandemics.

Ultimately though, no silver bullet

Fire metaphors are vivid, flexible and very well suited to capture different aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic. They also seem to occur across linguistic and cultural boundaries, as the #ReframeCovid collection suggests. Of course, no metaphor can cater for all aspects of something as complex and long term as a global pandemic, nor for all contingencies and audiences. We will therefore still need marathons, tsunamis, battles (in moderation) and even glitter in our metaphorical tool-kit. But fire metaphors are undoubtedly one of the most useful metaphorical tools at our disposal.

Elena Semino, 30th June 2020