Coronavirus: Crisis or War? A philosophical perspective on Trump’s approach

trump coronavirus

Trump stated that Covid-19 will be

our big war. It’s a medical war. We have to win this war. It’s very important.


Misname things is to add misfortune to the world.

This warning from Albert Camus was not enough to prevent the governments (US, France) from letting go once again of captivating remarks. By hammering several times that the country is at war, many politicians have in fact decided to subtly alter the reality of the health crisis that is currently raging across the globe, in order to continue writing the pages of the national novel that their is so expensive. Certainly, it may seem appropriate to use a martial lexical field to take stock of the gravity of a situation which, in certain aspects, appears to it. The fact remains that this is a discourse likely to distance the collective imagination from an autonomous reality, at the risk of diverting a little more the reflections that will be necessary, once the epidemic contained, the emergence of new, less fragile societal structures. As a prolegomena to these, this text therefore proposes to reflect on the influence of these deceptive words on the social constructions which emerge from them, in order to try to achieve a better discernment of the ins and outs of the current episode.

Entering the collective illusion

“Conflict situation between two or more countries, states, social groups, individuals, with or without armed struggle”.

The dictionary is formal and gives a definition of war which refers to properly human relationships, more precisely to a situation in which at least two opposing parties voluntarily attempt to impose a relationship of domination of one over the other (s). , whatever the consequences. However, it is precisely this conscious character that is missing from the virus that is currently spreading so that we can qualify it as an enemy. Because the latter only responds to a biological logic, that is to say to natural mechanisms that are not in any way akin to any desire to harm the human species. No one imagines the Covid-19 entrenched with its staff in the process of refining its attack strategy in response to the health protection measures that are currently in place. And no matter how we label it as an enemy out of rhetorical need, it remains highly unlikely that the latter will ever take notice of our declaration of war. By opting for this discourse, we are therefore creating a collective illusion. This technique, Clément Rosset analyzes, constitutes the most common form of negation of reality, and consists in doing one thing two. In this case, it is a question of correctly perceiving reality – here the health crisis which affects us today – but of drawing illusory conclusions from it – here that we would henceforth be at war against a common enemy which seeks to decimate us costs whatever it costs.

If we resort to this process, it is that there is

“Nothing is more fragile than the human faculty to admit reality, to accept without reserve the imperative prerogative of reality”,

wrote the philosopher. Because the singularity of the real gives it a particular strength, an unshakable character which sometimes opposes the designs of men, then unable to accommodate themselves to it. Here, therefore, it seems that the growing contrast between the carefree Sunday outings which still skimmed France recently, and the exponential start of medical statistics, decided the government to use hyperbola in order to catalyze the desired collective awareness. It is that we grant reality a certain degree of tolerance, “which everyone can suspend at will, as soon as circumstances require. ”

Crowd psychology

Given the circumstances, the executive has decreed a series of social restrictions, at a speed that may be more rapid than that of the spread of the disease. From the closure of all the schools to the confinement of the entire population not being involved in a production activity essential to the continuity of the nation in just a few days, these policies were quickly and widely applied by our fellow citizens under the effect of chaotic testimonies from Spanish and Italian peoples. These have also been welcomed by the scientific community, which has been alerting them to their urgency for several days, faced with pessimistic statistical projections as well as the first saturations of patient care services. Thus, some will consider that our decision-makers have shown pragmatism with regard to the importance of the situation. Because if we are not facing a traditional war, with weapons and soldiers, it would nevertheless be like a war when it comes to drawing up a sad sepulchral record. Recall that before entering everyday language to designate a person concerned with the immediate effectiveness of his actions, pragmatism is a philosophical current which posits that the meaning of an expression lies in all of its practical consequences.

The concern with the words spoken in front of millions of individuals, a fortiori when these are prey to their passions, is that their meaning immediately escapes the one who speaks them and that a new one emerges spontaneously through multiple collective interpretations. Hence the primordiality not to disguise reality, in this case not to cross the line between “it’s like a war” and “it’s a war”. Senatores boni viri senatus autem bestia, this drift therefore locked all of our leaders in a peremptory posture and, after the procrastination of the first instructions, pushed them to drastically accentuate the restrictive injunctions.

On the one hand, those who adhere strictly to the rules laid down, on the other, the dissidents who maintain futile outings despite the innumerable invitations to stay at home. Whether it’s personal stories of patients in remission, stunned statements from caregivers, or annoyed pleas from celebrities perhaps too cramped in their spacious villas, all castigate the irresponsible of those whose Individualism hampers the collective effort to save lives, and risks imposing the prolongation of this state of affairs longer than necessary. If the country has already known many oppositions lately, of the crisis of the yellow vests to the strikes against the pension reform, while passing by many ecological demonstrations, this one is all the more dangerous as few are today those who have the opportunity here to go and check for themselves the plausibility of the information that is reported to them en masse by the media and on social networks. Besides, initially announced as as exceptional as it is brief, there is no guarantee that the liberticidal turn that we are currently experiencing does not spread over time.

On the scientific side, whose opinion is now prior to any decision, healthcare officials reports that the inversion of the epidemiological curve will not occur before mid-May or even end of May, and that It may therefore be necessary to maintain containment until this period in order to avoid the reoccurrence of foci of contamination. At a time when everyone is trying to form their opinion on the behavior that should be adopted, let’s try not to give in to the polarization that has traditionally emerged from the debate on social networks. Rather than anchoring ourselves in stigmatizing convictions about what is good or bad, just or unfair, let us have the courage to recognize the fragility of our knowledge in the face of the complexity and novelty of what we are experiencing. In addition, let us remain vigilant, without becoming cynical, in the face of official orders which are taken urgently on the basis of scientific insights, the contradictions of study in study reveal the share of uncertainty. To use Keynes,

“It is amazing to see the madness that someone can temporarily believe in when they think too long alone.”

In conclusion of his reflections on the illusion, Clément Rosset, a french philosopher, tells us that

“Dodging is always a mistake because the real is always right”.

Worse, that in trying to protect ourselves from the latter by making a double, we fail to “recognize in the protective double the very reality that we thought we had guarded.” In the absence of this social life so crucial to the confrontation of ideas, and while the cities are starting to establish curfews and the army is now deployed in the struggle, let us rather be careful that the illusion which is spreading and which wants us to be at war now does not take precedence over reality.

Back to reality

Reality, let’s come back to it finally. While the world continues to speculate randomly on the appropriate means to stop the pandemic, the first empirical feedback comes to us as to the consequences of it. In Italy, the Institute of Health reported on the analysis of the files of the first 2,000 deaths due to Covid-19. Result, the typical profile of the victims is a 79.5-year-old man with one or more previous pathologies (link in Italian). In a country where the life expectancy for these gentlemen is 80.6 years. Let’s be clear, there is no question here of sweeping away the idiosyncratic sadness of those who have lost a loved one, or even of passing the incredible amount of energy that is currently taking place in hospitals for a trifle. However, is it not possible to question certain philosophical postulates of our society, such as our contemporary aversion to risk or our relationship to death? More specifically, with the advances in medicine that have seen life expectancy increase significantly in the space of a few decades, would we not end up thinking above natural laws?

Recently, a doctor declared in a TED conference that any death before 120 years is a premature death! Thus, our fear at the macabre overcrowding of resuscitation services is perhaps only the scotoma of a creeping reality that has developed in recent years, that of an aging Western population, kept almost alive artificially under the yoke of the pharmaceutical industry. That also, of a world population victim of the excesses of its way of life, as regards food, air quality, stress, and other silent evils to which we were accustomed, but whose harmful effects are put in light as aggravating factors for those exposed to the coronavirus. In his speech on March 16, the President of the Republic announced that our certainties would be turned upside down, that the pillars of our society would be re-examined, that decisions to break would be taken. At the moment, it is not.

On the contrary, these fundamental reflections are passed over in silence in favor of the reinforcement of a dominant ideology, that all life must be saved whatever it costs. But not just any lives, only the lives of those affected by the current epidemic. To ensure this, myths are created, often in spite of any rigorous evidence. Whoever would like the mortality rate to fluctuate between 3 and 15% when only a tiny fraction of human beings is actually tested. Whoever wants everyone to be vulnerable while in Italy, only five deaths are counted among people under 40, all of them male, with serious previous pathologies. Anyone who wants young people to be the main vectors of contamination, while the latest infectious studies show that they are, on the contrary, very few carriers and contaminators. Or the even more absurd one who wants it better to eradicate the virus before he can mutate and become more deadly. At the point where we are, why not decree that it is better to go out again to enjoy life, as soon as a black hole is likely to engulf the Earth next month? After all, if it is a question of anticipating with fantasy all the disaster scenarios, let us go frankly. Before taking radical decisions, and even more of making them a reason for moralization, let us study all their consequences, calmly, serenely. While we are doing more than ever to guarantee the maximum life expectancy for the most vulnerable, others do not and will not receive such favorable treatment. In this case, it is estimated that about 13,000 suicides recorded in Europe and the United States are attributable to the economic crisis of 2008. However, the economic measures which have already been taken in anticipation of those which waiting for us at the end of the pandemic are already more important than ten years ago. According to the Lancet Infectious Diseases, 

The Lancet Infectious Diseases paper found that globally, the case fatality rate for those under age 60 was 1.4 percent. For those over age 60, the fatality rate jumps to 4.5 percent. The older the population, the higher the fatality rate grows. For those 80 and over, Covid-19 appears to have a 13.4 percent fatality rate.

Ironically, and while spring should allow us to take advantage of sunny days, the latter who usually live outside in general indifference, will today have to stay locked up in narrow hotel rooms finally requisitioned for the occasion despite requests yet made each winter. We must dare the mantra “a life is a life” when social fragility is ultimately only an ersatz health fragility. Will we put, once social life started, as much zeal to rescue all the most precarious, without exception? What if the current outbursts of solidarity were only a hypocrite pretext that we would have found to restore our good conscience after years of guilt about our indifference to ecological, economic, or even overconsumption problems? We have evolved in recent years in a society trapped by wealth inequality, in which 1% of the population counts as much as the remaining 99%. Are we ready to impose this same inequality report transposed to the health sector?


In Greek antiquity, the sophist Protagoras argued that “man is the measure of everything“. By setting up the illusion that the country is at war, our policies are doubly revisiting this message.

    • First, by instilling in people’s minds that man can declare war on anything he wants, including a virus, in defiance of all natural reality.
    • Then, by strengthening the sacralization of human life, at least that of the patients of Covid-19, again in defiance of all natural reality. By using this process, we are fleeing from a reality to which we will inevitably return, and whose backlash will be all the more severe as the illusion will be collective. Another path is possible, that of true solidarity. With realistic solidarity in view of the factual scale of the epidemic but also of all the externalities brought about by the measures taken to combat it.

Solidarity not imposed, which raises awareness instead of vilification, which is based on empathy for all and not for a handful. Of course, as always, there will be childish people, selfish people, even people who will try to take advantage of the situation, but there have probably been in every crisis that human history has known, and yet it continues to be written. On the other hand, the real wars which pave this same history are each time more deadly, given the sophistication of technologies. Let us make sure that our decision to make this epidemic a war does not end up causing more deaths in the long term than it would have done if we had treated it as a crisis. The flower that thrives in adversity is the rarest and most beautiful of all. 

Matthieu Daviaud Estelle Labbé

English translation of this article

Cite this article as: Tim, "Coronavirus: Crisis or War? A philosophical perspective on Trump’s approach, April 3, 2020, " in Philosophy & Philosophers, April 3, 2020,