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WITHIN Blog: April 2020

"We will win the fight" - Battling language use in the news and media coverage of COVID-19: Some links to chronic pain experience

By Dr Nicole Tang on behalf of the WITHIN team.

Checking the news about the latest spread of the Coronavirus has become an obsessive ritual during the lockdown. This is an accessible way to gain a sense of control at a time of exceptional uncertainty.

Many nations have put themselves on war footing. Suddenly, fighting talks are all the over place in the news and in politicians’ communications to the public, with frequent references made to WWII when the world was gripped with loss and hardship.

When the French president Emmanuel Macron ordered his people to stay home in a televised speech, he said his country was "at war with an invisible, elusive enemy" (BBC).

Here in the UK, PM Boris Johnson told his cabinet that we are "engaged in a war against the disease which we have to win". When he was subsequently tested positive for COVID-19 and having to self-isolate, he said on Twitter that
" in no doubt that I can lead the national fight-back against coronavirus". In a separate video released, he vowed to lead the nation’s response to the outbreak saying "…[t]ogether we will beat this".

Boris Johnson was admitted to hospital on 5th April and moved to the intensive care unit the following day when his condition worsened. At the press conference that evening, his stand-in, Dominic Raab, says Boris Johnson will “pull through” his health crisis “because... he’s a fighter”. Using similar words, the business minister Nadim Zahawi tweeted that "I have known Boris for 20 years he is a fighter and will beat this virus.”

In fact, this kind of fighting talk goes beyond the political realm. The Daily mail reported that "an Italian archbishop who has represented the Vatican in the US and Europe has called for a global exorcism prayer on Saturday to defeat coronavirus" (Daily Mail).

Such wartime language reminds us of a similar state of mind people with chronic pain may share. Many feel that they are at war with pain, an invisible enemy that kept encroaching what they can and cannot do. A natural response to a war situation is to fight and to do everything one can to defeat the enemy.

Interestingly, public reactions to the use of wartime language are not necessary answers to battle call*:

"Will the media and others please stop using terms like battling and struggling. It is unfair on sick patients who have no say in the matter. And it’s ok to be scared"

"Please please stop using this language about fighting through. It really upsets those of us who’ve known cancer. It implies that those who lost didn’t fight hard enough."

*quotes are from

These reactions have led us wonder how far we should stretch the analogy and whether it is actually helpful to use battle terminology to describe one’s journey with health conditions (e.g., cancer, chronic pain) that are not necessarily within our complete control.

We wonder what the psychological impact and costs are if people with chronic pain see themselves engaged in a daily battle...

  • Would it make people feel more resolute and motivated to push on through pain?
  • Would the perception of batter put people on a high level of chronic stress and would such stress make the pain worse?
  • Would it make people feel worse when pain persists despite trying every pain relief there is?
  • If a battle mentality makes one feel on edge, stuck, depressed, beaten and defeated, is there an alternative perspective that one could adopt?

We don’t have full answers to the above questions, but our research team have spoken to many people with chronic pain about their experience. We understand the fear, frustration and loneliness involved in their daily struggle with pain that you can’t see, people can’t see, and yet doesn’t go away no matter what you do. They somehow find themselves in a situation looking for a cure that doesn’t exist. Many are left feeling defeated.

We are gathering more evidence on these issues with our planned studies that will start in a couple of weeks’ time. Check out how to get involved if you are intrigued by these questions outlined here too.

In the meantime, we are keeping all affected by COVID-19 in our thoughts.

Written by Dr Nicole Tang
Reader in Psychology & CI of WITHIN, Dep. of Psychology, University of Warwick