‘A fire raging’: Why fire metaphors truly fan the flames of Covid-19

Fire metaphors are vivid, flexible and well suited to capture different aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic, says a new report from Lancaster University.

Globally renowned metaphor expert and linguist Professor Elena Semino suggests fire metaphors and, specifically, metaphors involving forest fires, are particularly appropriate and useful for communication about the pandemic.

“Even out of context, forest fires are a suitable area of experience for metaphorical exploitation,” said Professor Semino.

“They are vivid, or image-rich. They are familiar, even when not experienced directly. They have multiple elements such as trees, fire-fighters, arsonists, victims, etc. and they have strong evaluative and emotional associations. They also seem to occur across linguistic and cultural boundaries.”

Professor Semino identified fire metaphors are used flexibly and creatively for multiple purposes, to:
  • Convey danger and urgency
  • Distinguish between different phases of the pandemic
  • Explain how contagion happens and the role of individuals
  • Justify measures for reducing contagion
  • Portray the role of health workers
  • Connect the pandemic with health inequalities and other problems
  • Outline post-pandemic futures.

Her initial observations are based on the #ReframeCovid collection of metaphors, which, includes fire metaphors from five different languages (Dutch, English, Greek, Italian and Spanish) as well as visual images involving metaphorical flames or fires.

#ReframeCovid is an international initiative launched in response to the dominant use of War metaphors at the start of the pandemic. War metaphors have been criticised for inappropriately personifying the virus as a malevolent opponent, creating unnecessary anxiety and dangerously legitimising authoritarian governmental measures.

“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 aims to collect a wide variety of ‘naturally occurring’ metaphors as data for research and as potential resources for communication and thinking” said Professor Semino.

In addition, Professor Semino identified 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.

Danger and urgency

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 Centre for Infectious Disease at the University of Minnesota spoke about a ‘forest fire that may not slow down’.

Different phases

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 thecoronavirusis afireraging’. In contrast, in May 2020, the Irish Prime Minister combined fire and war metaphors when he stated that, in Ireland, the coronavirus wasa ‘fire in retreat’ but ‘not defeated’, adding: ‘We must extinguish every spark, quench every ember.’

Contagion

An article on Medscape website stated: “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).

Containment measures

The use of fire metaphors to explain how contagion happens often sets the scene for explaining how new infections can be stopped. “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’ is used to justify face masks as an effective measure against the spread of the virus.

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.

Health inequalities

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.’

The future

Fire metaphors are 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: “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.”

Concluded Professor Semino: “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.”