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Legitimizing Crisis Management during COVID-191

Légitimer la gestion de crise pendant la Covid-19
Ruth Wodak
Traduction de Ruth Amossy
Cet article est une traduction de :
Légitimer la gestion de crise pendant la Covid-191 [fr]


A la mi-mars 2020, les gouvernements européens (et pas seulement eux) ne pouvaient plus nier le danger que représentait la pandémie de la Covid-19, et se devaient de l’affronter au plus vite. Différents types de gestion de crise ont été adoptés par les dirigeants pour persuader la population d’accepter les mesures destinées à enrayer la propagation du virus, et par là à réduire la peur et l’incertitude. Certaines mesures entraînaient de graves restrictions des droits humains (telle que la liberté de mouvement). C’est pourquoi différentes stratégies de légitimation ont été mobilisées pour créer dans l’ensemble de la société un consensus sur la nécessité de ces mesures. Certains gouvernements ont également instrumentalisé la pandémie à des fins autoritaires. Dans cet article, on analyse différentes stratégies de légitimation, selon l’approche proposée à l’origine par van Leeuwen et Wodak (1999) et approfondie par Wodak (2018, 2021). Dans ce cadre la légitimation est mise en relation avec des schèmes argumentatifs précis qui sont toujours analysés en contexte. Les données traitées ici proviennent d’allocutions gouvernementales et de conférences de presse tenues en Autriche et en Hongrie, en France, en Suède et en Nouvelle-Zélande durant la période allant de mars à décembre 2020.

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  • 1 This is a shortened and revised version of Wodak 2021b.

1Mid-March 2020, most European governments decided that they could not deny the Covid-19 dangerous pandemic anymore and that they had to quickly cope with the crisis. Different modes of crisis communication have been adopted by government leaders to persuade people to abide by various measures to counteract the spreading of the virus, and thus to reduce fears and uncertainties. As Bauman (2006: 31) maintains, “all human cultures can be decoded as ingenious contraptions calculated to make life with the awareness of mortality liveable.”

  • 2 See, for example, Stråth & Wodak (2009); Powers & Xiao (2008); Huang & Holmgreen (2020).

2In fact, governments frequently legitimize their policy proposals with an appeal to the necessities of security. Such arguments became eminent after the end of the Cold War in 1989 and were forcefully reinvigorated after 9/11, in the course of the refugee movement in 2015/16 (usually referred to as the “refugee crisis”), and when confronting the terrorist activities engaged in by ISIS and extreme-right terrorists. Each crisis contributes to both new and old threat scenarios, as could be observed with respect to the financial crisis, the Euro crisis, the SARS crisis, and the so-called “refugee crisis2.”

3Not surprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic also follows this pattern. Governments had to persuade the citizens to follow the proposed measures, some of which implied severe restrictions of human rights (such as freedom of movement, and so forth). Therefore, different legitimation strategies were applied to create society-wide consensus that such measures were indeed necessary. Some governments have—as will be illustrated—also instrumentalized the pandemic for their authoritarian aims. Subsequently, many debates have emerged challenging such sweeping measures and appealing for more transparency in governmental decision-making procedures: Were the measures indeed necessary? How were they officially legitimized? By whom?

  • 3 The chosen countries contrast richer and poorer countries (along the North/South divide in the Euro (...)

4It is, of course, impossible—in the fall of 2021—to take stock of the different types of crisis management and crisis communication as well as counter-discourses because the crisis is not over yet. Thus, in this paper, I present interim findings—findings which cover a clearly defined discourse strand, i.e., governmental discourses during the global lockdown from March 2020 to June 2020 (as discussed in section 3). By analyzing a sample of important speeches and press conferences by European government leaders (all performing as the “face of crisis management”) in Austria, New Zealand, France, Hungary, and Sweden, it is possible to deconstruct measures and procedures deemed adequate for coping with this pandemic3 (see Wodak 2021b for the analysis of more countries and data). In other words: politicians had to legitimize their decisions in publicly acceptable ways via different legitimation strategies, combined with warrants (topoi) related to the alleged common-sense or endoxa of the population (e.g., Wodak 2018: 41-46 ; Wodak 2020: 136-41). Accordingly, we are confronted with appeals to experts (authority legitimation combined with topos of authority); to statistical predictions (rationalization legitimation combined with topos of numbers), to historical experiences (strategy of mythopoesis combined with topos of history), and to salient values and norms (moral legitimation combined with human rights and topos of solidarity). Thus, such appeals take the form of argumentation schemes, either in a classical Toulmin-scheme; or by only mentioning the topoi (see below, section 2.1.)

  • 4 See, for example, Stern (2020); Khoo & Schimpfössl (2020); Novy & Winckler (2020) for analyses of t (...)

5Due to limitations of space, however, I must omit oppositional voices to governments’ decisions and COVID-19 deniers in government, i.e., those leaders who denied and trivialized the danger caused by the pandemic, such as Donald Trump, Jair Bolsanaro, and—at least initially—Boris Johnson4. I

  • 5 See Wodak (2021b) for more details about the impact of the “fear of death” in respect to the pandem (...)
  • 6 See Pyszczynski (2004); Triandafyllidou et al. (2009); De Rycker & Mohd Don (2013); Neüff (2018) fo (...)

6I focus on four frames as the result of an abductive and comparative discourse-historical analysis, each of which is strategically employed—in respect to different socio-political contexts—to mitigate the “dread of death”5 combined with the respective legitimation strategies: a ‘religious frame’, a ‘dialogic frame’, a frame emphasizing “trust”, and a frame of “leading a war” (section 5). Importantly, these frames are discursively legitimized in significantly different ways (section 3). Since threatening economic and political crises6 trigger a patriotic nationalism, a unification of “us” against “them” which even transcends traditional cleavages of left and right (section 4), it is not surprising that this has also been the case with COVID-19. Even the Schengen Area was suddenly suspended in response (to “keep the virus out”) and borders were closed.

1. Discourse, Frame, and Legitimation

7In this analysis, I draw on Robert Entman’s approach to “framing” (who in turn adopts Erving Goffman’s salient theory, e.g., van Dijk 2020). As Entman explains to frame “is to select some aspects of perceived reality and make them more salient in the communicating” text. According to Entman, framing “plays a major role in the exertion of political power and the frame in a news text is really the imprint of power” (1993: 52). Historically speaking, Goffman’s interest in frames and framing coincides with frame analysis in other disciplines, especially in linguistics (“frame semantics”; Fillmore 1976) and Artificial Intelligence (van Dijk 2020: 35-36).

8In the discourse-historical analysis below, I combine legitimation analysis with frame and argumentation analysis. Frames serve as “interpretation frameworks,” as worldviews, or – speaking in the terminology of Terror Management Theory – as “cultural worldviews.” “Interpretation framework” (Deutungsrahmen) is the label for “frame” used in the paradigm of sociology of knowledge (e.g., Gotsbacher 1999). The function of interpretation frameworks for text comprehension is to convey elements of meaning that can be invoked by speakers and writers as self-evident (e.g., Cicourel 1975). Such presuppositions and expectations are picked up by the respective audience, through which the statements made are invested with their complete meaning (i.e., ‘”dialogicity;” Bakhtin1982). These elements consist—on the one hand—of definitions of the identities of the speakers, which are indexed and assigned through mechanisms of negotiating social identities and relationships. On the other hand, these are definitions of the context and the implied social knowledge.

9Van Leeuwen and Wodak (1999) introduced a framework for analyzing the language of legitimation with four major categories: authorization, moral evaluation, rationalization, and mythopoesis. Legitimation qua authorization depends on reference to personal, impersonal, expert, or role model authority, but may also appeal to custom in the form of tradition or conformity. Legitimation qua moralization is based on abstract moral values (religious, human rights, justice, culture, and so forth), straightforwardly evaluative claims, or analogy to assumedly established moral cases. Legitimation through rationalization references either the utility of the social practice or some part of it (i.e., instrumental rationalization by way of goals, means, or outcomes) or to assumed “facts of life” (i.e. theoretical rationalization by way of definition, explanation, or prediction). Rationalization may be established as ‘common sense’ or by experts in the domains of knowledge used for legitimation, e.g., economics, biology, or technology. In legitimation through mythopoesis, the proponents of the policy in question will rely on telling stories that may serve as exemplars or cautionary tales.

10Given its socio-political nature, it follows that legitimation routinely draws on recurring argumentation schemata to persuade the public of the acceptability or necessity of a specific action or policy (see Table 1).



Personal Authority: Based on institutional status of individuals/groups

Impersonal Authority: Originating from laws, policies, regulations, etc.

Expert Authority: Academic, scientific, or other type of credible expertise

Role Model Authority: Popularity and acceptability of positions held by role models or opinion leaders


Authority of Tradition: Acceptability of what is claimed to have always been done

Authority of Conformity: Acceptability of what everyone or most people do


Abstraction: Abstract depiction of practices that links them to moral values

Evaluation: Legitimation of positions and practices via evaluative adjectives

Analogy: Legitimation relying on comparisons and contrasts


Instrumental Rationalization

Goal Orientation: Focused on goals, intentions, purposes

Means Orientation: Focused on aims embedded in actions as means to an end

Outcome Orientation: Focused on outcomes of actions as if already known

Theoretical Rationalization

Definition: Characterising activities in terms of already moralized practices

Explanation: Characterising people as actors because the way they do things is appropriate to the nature of these actors

Prediction: Foreseeing outcomes based on some form of expertise


Moral Tales: Narrating rewarding decisions and practices of social actors

Cautionary Tales: Linking nonconformist practices to undesirable consequences

11Table 1: Types of legitimation (adapted from Wodak 2018).

  • 7 For an overview of existing taxonomies, cf. Reisigl and Wodak (2001) and Rheindorf and Wodak (2020)

12In a more specific elaboration of the relationship between legitimation (argumentation) and normative values (“common sense” as used in political legitimation), van Eemeren (2010) uses the Aristotelian term endoxon to define the presupposed common-sense knowledge of a specific epistemic community. Through the notion of endoxa as commonly held beliefs, van Eemeren (2010, 111) corroborates Habermas’s (1992) thesis that legal systems ultimately depend on moral systems, even if morality infiltrates law through whatever room it leaves for interpretation (e.g., Van Leeuwen & Wodak, 1999: 111). A key strategy of the discourse-historical approach is to make tacit or implicit topoi explicit in the form of conditional or causal paraphrases (Reisigl & Wodak 2001, 69–80). For example, appealing to moral legitimation works as follows: “We must protect the vulnerable groups” implies “if we protect vulnerable groups, we behave according to norms of solidarity which are a necessary element of cohesion in our society.” In the context of legitimation, the analysis of topoi may reveal flawed logic, manipulative, and erroneous conclusions since what they ignore or sidestep can be fallacious7.

13Thus, to understand the specific dynamics of legitimation in particular contexts, such as the financial crisis of 2008 or the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to focus on the typical patterns and characteristics of these discursive strategies in context. Legitimation strategies are necessarily linked to specific content-related argumentation schemes which serve to substantiate specific decisions in reproducible, frequently common-sense ways (Wodak 2018). As elaborated by Wodak (2021: 84), legitimation can also involve problem-denial, combined with a counterattack, accompanied with negative Other-presentation, that is, attacking the (sometimes only alleged) accusation and accuser (see section 4). In this case, the argumentation is frequently based on discrediting the opponent (argumentum ad hominem), on threatening the opponent (argumentum ad baculum) or on an alternative claim, applied to shift blame. Moreover, relativizing and trivializing strategies occur, frequently by using (fallacious) comparisons or strategies of equation: “The ‘normal’ flu is also dangerous.”

3. Covid-19 and Renationalizing Tendencies

14Analogies and comparisons, arguments using statistics, ratings and numbers, and persuasive rhetoric appealing to citizens to abide by regulations and measures were salient strategies adopted during the lockdown months in most countries where government leaders took the danger posed by the COVID virus seriously. A re/nationalizing tendency became apparent throughout, specifically when attempting to persuade citizens to follow the rules of the respective country. We are therefore confronted with national biopolitics and nationalistic body-politics (which metaphorically implies conceptualizing the nation as a “body” (Musolff 2010; Wodak 2021a; Boin, Lodge and Luesink 2020).

15For example, in Austria, no one could doubt who should ultimately be considered the “savior of the nation,”, a wise and strict “father” who cares for all “real” Austrians and sets rules accordingly, to put it in terms of linguist George Lakoff and his metaphor of the “nation as a family.” Fear and renunciation, so the promise, are followed by hope and salvation (Lakoff 2004). Overall, the often-quoted nationalistic “closing of ranks” has a calming effect. Chancellor Sebastian Kurz emphasized repeatedly, for example in the ZIB Spezial (the main news channel) on 30 March 2020, ‘I have firm faith in our Austria’. Moreover, in parliament on 3 April 2020, Kurz was completely convinced that Austria or “Team Austria” would successfully overcome the crisis – better, in fact, than other countries. A nationalist competition seemed to be the order of the day:

I guarantee you that Austria will survive this crisis: Austria will get through this crisis better than other countries, Austria will get out of this crisis faster than other countries, but only if we stand together and if we do one thing: persevere.

16Kurz also increasingly emphasized that there was no alternative to the governmental measures; the so-called TINA-argument (‘there is no alternative’) was employed as rationalization legitimation. Decisions were thus essentialized:

“We are doing the right thing;”; “We are completely convinced that we are doing the right thing;” “The measures we are taking are the right ones” (ZIB Spezial, 30 March 2020). “All studies prove: If we had not taken these steps, there would be a massive spread in Austria with up to a hundred thousand dead” (Kurz, ZIB II, 6 April 2020).

17Praise was expressed, according to Lakoff’s approach, toward the good and well-behaving children of the Austrian family: “We are impressed by what you are achieving,”, “Hang in there,” and, because the crisis could be compared to a stressful and challenging sporting effort: “This is a marathon” (Kurz, ZIB Spezial, 20 March 2020).

18National identity politics necessarily imply positive self and negative other presentations. From this perspective, events, statistics, and technical discourses provide resources for the context within which governments draw on binaries such as good and bad people, perpetrators and victims, experts and lay persons, healthy and sick people, old and young people, people who follow the rules and people who do not. Moreover, media panic produces and reproduces strategies of blame and denial which lead to narratives of decline, helplessness, rise or success, power or control, as well as a vehement scapegoating rhetoric (Wodak 2021a). These scapegoats, according to media constructions and the proposals of some politicians, must be punished and suffer the consequences of their actions.

19During the first months of the COVID crisis, the scapegoats varied, ranging from Trump’s label “the Chinese virus” to the Austrian government’s “Croatian virus” in reference to the people who had spent their holidays outside of Austria, in Croatia, in spite of patriotic propaganda urging everybody to remain in Austria for their holidays in order to boost the Austrian economy. By shifting blame on to scapegoats, the government is able to legitimize the exclusion of certain groups by closing borders with the slogan of “protecting our people” (against migrants, asylum-seekers) ; or to enforce stricter measures due to the danger caused by anti-vaccination movements (rather than to apologize for unsuccessful vaccination campaigns), and so forth. Moreover, since the end of the lockdown in May 2020, we have been confronted with counter-discourses spreading conspiracy theories about the origins of the virus. Bill Gates, George Soros, virologists, pharma businesses, politicians, the media, and so forth are allegedly to blame for the pandemic (e.g. Spring et Wendling 2020).

3.1 The Religious Frame—Legitimation Qua Moralization

20In the Austrian hegemonic discourse, the Catholic Easter festival became a turning point during the COVID crisis and lent itself to the construction of a religious frame. The employment of a natural disaster metaphor served to construct dystopian scenarios and to add a haunting tune full of pathos for suffering and death:

21This crisis will mean illness, suffering, and for some people death’ (Kurz, ZIB Spezial 14 March 2020). “The virus threatens the most important thing that exists for us, namely our health” (Kurz, ZIB Spezial 18 March 2020). “This is the biggest crisis since World War Two.” “Many people cannot imagine what is coming in a few weeks. This is the calm before the storm.” “We will soon have a situation in Austria, too, that everybody will know somebody who has died of Corona” (Kurz, ZIB Spezial, 30 March 2020).

22Should the virus be defeated (here employing a war metaphor), Kurz promised a “resurrection” after Easter, thus using a Catholic frame, an allusion to the redemption narrative:

23Easter week will be a decisive week for us. It will be a week that will determine whether the resurrection after Easter that we all wish for can take place. (Kurz, ZIB Spezial, 6 April 2020)

24The religious frame offers consolation in times of dreading death. As Bauman (2006: 30) maintains: “Death is the ‘unknown’ incarnate; and among all other ‘unknowns’ it is the only one fully and truly unknowable. Whatever we have done to prepare for death, death finds us unprepared.” Everybody is afraid of death, Bauman continues. During a pandemic, therefore, a time when many people die, people necessarily become more aware of death, one cannot deny its presence. Accordingly, “the prospect of eternity” is a “source of perpetual joy for the good and diligent” (Bauman 2006: 32). This frame lent itself ideally to cope with the uncertainty caused by the pandemic and the inherent fear of death and thus morally legitimized even the most restrictive measures.

25In addition, the official rhetoric promised a victory over the virus after a long and painful ordeal and much suffering and depicted a future full of hope, as stated in an “open letter of the Federal Chancellor before Easter” (11 April 2020, quoted from Here, Austrian citizens were confronted with legitimation qua mythopoesis:

Our Easter is taking place under special circumstances this year. […] The measures being taken demanded a lot from us but were necessary to prevent the worst. Four out of five people infected with Corona have no symptoms and therefore do not know that they are ill. However, they can still infect other people, for whom the disease is potentially fatal. This is one reason why the virus is so dangerous for our society. […] Next year at Easter, we want to be able to look back together and say, “good that we defeated the Coronavirus.”

26The combination of religious framing with strict measures during the lockdown and appeals to responsibility also proved effective in managing the COVID crisis in Greece. In comparison to other countries that rely heavily on tourism, the death toll remained low in relation to population numbers (WKO 2021); the strict measures were relaxed very slowly, in contrast, for example, to Austria, where a speedy relaxation (pushed for by businesses and the large and powerful tourism lobbies) have led to a shockingly fast rise in the number of positive cases during the summer and autumn of 2020.

3.2 A Dialogic FrameLegitimation Qua Rationalization and Authorization

27New Zealand (and inter alia Germany) engaged in a quasi-dialogue with their citizens. One could view Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern as a caring mother employing a strategy of providing much information, explanation, and justification, as well as a positive vision for the future. She gave five speeches in which she provided updates on the current situation. In her first speech (21 March 2020), similarly to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, she attempted to reassure the people (explicitly addressing all New Zealanders) that the government knew what is relevant and had already set priorities and decided which measures should be implemented. By listing clear and distinct rules and making a concise and logical argument why everybody should abide by the rules, she stated that everything was under control. Moreover, she conveyed explicitly that it was understandable that people experience uncertainty—which is why she provided a clearly defined way forward. She concluded on a positive note. In the entire speech, there was no danger scenario, no warning that people could be punished for violating the rules. No competition with other countries was aimed at and the rhetoric remained completely secular, without any insinuations to religious tropes or to nativist nationalism8.

I’m speaking directly to all New Zealanders today to give you as much certainty and clarity as we can as we fight Covid-19. […]

I understand that all of this rapid change creates anxiety, and uncertainty. Especially when it means changing how we live. That’s why today I am going to set out for you as clearly as possible, what you can expect as we continue to fight the virus together. […]

We will use this alert system every time we update our cases, so you’ll know if the status in your area has gone up, or down, or stayed the same. And what you’ll need to do. […]

For now, I ask that New Zealand does what we do so well. We are a country that is creative, practical, and community minded. We may not have experienced anything like this in our lifetimes, but we know how to rally and we know how to look after one another, and right now what could be more important than that. So thank you for all that you’re about to do.

Please be strong, be kind, and unite against COVID-19.

28Ardern’s (and Merkel’s) main strategies to cope with the dread of death are legitimized by moral appeals (to solidarity and to stand together) and rationalization legitimation (topoi of burden and security). Ardern also employs mythopoesis (appeals to positive experiences of togetherness). Moreover, she establishes a dialogue and delivers complex information in an understandable way. She establishes national unity and reassurance that the government has everything under control. And most importantly, shows empathy.

3.3. Sweden’s ‘Uniqueness’—Establishing and Maintaining Trust

29The “Swedish way” differed from that of all other liberal democratic countries: Sweden never introduced a complete lockdown, thus schools remained open, all cultural institutions were closed, and some shops and restaurants remained accessible, with severe measures of social distancing. The government decided to propose recommendations that experts, specifically Sweden’s state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, believed to be relevant and effective to contain the spread of the virus: virtually every Swede listened to Tegnell’s daily updates on TV and radio.

30The people seemed to have trusted the government despite an extremely high death rate early on (in comparison, for example, to other Scandinavian countries), while the government trusted people’s responsibility in getting on with their daily lives (legitimation via rationalization and moralization). As politicians in other countries were challenged with questions about the Swedish way and why they would not follow this example, they were quickly to reply that Sweden is very different, geographically, and politically. For example, Sweden is less densely populated. Critics emphasized that Sweden had not protected their elderly people adequately to maintain “normality.”

31Simon (2020: 49) notes in an in-depth study comparing crisis management in the Nordic countries that some political speeches displayed the attributes of attempting to promote the “Swedish way;”’ for example, a speech by Lena Hallengren (2020), Minister of Health and Social Affairs, to the WHO:

There has been some interest internationally in our approach to combat the virus. […] But to understand our approach, it helps to be aware of some fundamental characteristics of Swedish society. Our welfare state is universal, including the health care system. […] There is a tradition of mutual trust between public authorities and citizens. People trust and follow the recommendations of the authorities to a large extent. The Swedish Government has, from the start of the outbreak, applied a ‘whole-of-Government’ approach. [..] Our measures aim to save lives and slow down the outbreak.

32Recent research (Pierre 2020; Helsingen et al 2020; Bergenfalk 2020) illustrates that many Swedes are very proud of Sweden and the so-called Swedish model; they believe in a unique Swedish national identity, built on a decentralized system and on trust. Simon (2020, 54) summarizes his analysis of critical international media reporting on the “Swedish way” that “Sweden attempted to leverage its relatively popular and positive global brand (before COVID-19) with a value and normative based frame that was intended to enhance the national image of the country and people as capable and courageous norm entrepreneurs by making use of the crisis of information as an opportunity.” Indeed, as politicians repeatedly stated, the Swedish strategy of containing the virus was based on a model of trust and collaboration:

  • 9 Johan Carlson, 2 March 2020, “Vi tror att vår strategi är framgångsrik i det här läget. Den bygger (...)

[Our strategy] is built upon information and providing the population with knowledge […], the success factors of our disease prevention is built on trust and faith […]. We also strived from the start to have a society that is as open as possible9.

33People are not ordered; they are politely advised to be considerate and to keep their distance. Everybody’s own responsibility is invoked, everybody should help build a mutual relationship of trust. The aim of this “Swedish trust” was, as Bergenfalk (2020: 33) argues, to establish a quasi-symbiotic relationship between the citizens and the authorities that benefitted both parties (legitimization qua moralization). This is consistent with the fact that Swedes generally have a high level of trust in institutions. Therefore, the strategy adopted by the Swedish government aimed to guide society and identity further in this direction. Thus, the strategy, it was presupposed, would produce citizens capable of implementing and practicing a ‘regulated freedom’ (ibid.: 33).

34This finding is substantiated by Pierre (2020, 482), who maintains that “Sweden is a high-trust society, both in terms of interpersonal and institutional trust. This high level of trust facilitates informal yet efficient coordination with very low transaction costs.”

  • 10 The Public Health Agency of Sweden (2020) also launched a multilingual official website, which was (...)
  • 11 In hindsight, the state epidemiologist Tegnell acknowledged in an interview with Radio Sweden on 2 (...)

35An official website (in many languages) was launched that listed all the regulations and provided a lot of information10. Bergenfalk (2020: 40-43) concludes that “death becomes normalized, as we can see throughout the Swedish state’s response to the covid-19 pandemic, en the benefits of prosperous life for the many outweigh the suffering of the few.” Thus, death was not denied11; the old and fragile were – so to speak – sacrificed for the “the welfare, happiness and general health of the majority” (ibid). This implies a quasi-rational cost-benefit biopolitics (legitimation qua rationalization) which contrasts to the decision-making in other countries, where the restrictions were mostly legitimized due to different values, to protect and save the elderly.

3.4 The “War against the Virus”

36Most politicians used war metaphors at some point during the COVID crisis. However, some presidents and prime ministers relied on a conceptual metaphor of “fighting the virus” or “the war against the virus” to frame all their public speeches, interviews, and press conferences (legitimation qua authorization). The positive outcome of such a war would be, so the argument went, a “victory over the virus” by successfully “defending” the respective country. This discourse was launched by the French President Emanuel Macron on the one hand and by the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, on the other.

37Macron justified the strict measures imposed in France by repeatedly claiming that a war had to be fought; that France was at war. He also appealed to national unity across all party lines.

We are at war and, faced with what is coming, the peak of the epidemic which is before us, I have decided, on the basis of a proposal from the Minister of the Armed Forces and the Chief of the Defense Staff, to launch Operation Resilience. (Macron 2020)

38One month later, Macron had dropped greatly in popularity because of the high death rate, overcrowded hospitals, and a shortage of nurses and doctors. Accordingly, he changed his strategy, now appealing to solidarity and equality, while referring to the French Revolution and quoting the first article of the Human Rights Declaration from 26 August 1789 (legitimation qua rationalization and mythopoesis). More specifically, he promised higher salaries for nurses, care workers, cashiers, and bus drivers. He spoke of hope if the strict measures were followed and even admitted that the government had reacted too slowly at the outset of the fight against the virus.

39The strategies adopted by Orbán were significantly different than Macron’s. On the one hand, the Hungarian prime minister also viewed the crisis as a “war against the virus” to be fought and won. Thus, he aimed to fight panic. However, on the other hand, he also instrumentalized this conceptual mindset to undermine Hungarian democracy.

40Viktor Orbán decided to give regular statements via TV and radio in which he continuously used military jargon, thus creating a very different semantic field than the other leaders mentioned above. For example, on 23 March 2020, he described the military operations put in place to defend the Hungarian population (my emphasis):

It was a question of waiting or acting and we decided to take up the fight instead of waiting. We immediately saw that in the usual order, in addition to our usual way of life, upholding our principles of life organization, within the framework of the usual legislation, we would not be able to organize Hungary’s collective self-defense, and we would not be able to repel this attack. That is why we […] declared a state of emergency. The state of emergency means that the government has been given the authority and the means to organize Hungary’s self-defense with a chance of success. […]

We have organized the defense along four lines. We must stand on four battlefields right now. There is a military defense, a police defense, a health defense, and an economic defense. We also knew that there would be three stages in the spread of the virus, so we also need to adjust the pace of defense, what to do, and the decisions and steps to take. (Orbán 2020, my emphasis)


41Here, Orbán already mentioned the necessity of implementing a state of emergency in Hungary. On 30 March 2020, The Hungarian Parliament voted to allow Orbán to rule by decree indefinitely (with 138 votes in favor and 53 votes against) to combat the pandemic, thus giving Orbán extra powers to unilaterally enact a series of sweeping measures. As CNN reported: “Its [the parliament’s] provisions go well beyond the various forms of legislation hastily put together by other EU member states in response to the coronavirus pandemic, dramatically ramping up the strongman leader’s powers” (Picheta and Halasz 2020). Thus, punishment became possible for journalists if the government believed their coronavirus reporting was not accurate. Moreover, heavier penalties for violating quarantine regulations were made possible by this law. Third, no elections or referendums could be held while this order was in place. Orbán justified this extraordinary measure with the topos of urgency, according to CNN: “We cannot react quickly if there are debates and lengthy legislative and law-making procedures. And in times of crisis and epidemic, the ability to respond rapidly can save lives” (Picheta and Halasz 2020).

42On 16 June 2020, the state of emergency was lifted. However, as the Friedrich Naumann Foundation rightly argues, “at the same time as the emergency was lifted, parliament also voted in favor of a draft law on a new, so-called ‘state of medical emergency.” According to this bill, the government would be able to govern by decree again in such a case, with even less control than before” (FNFEUROPE 2020). Both bills were adopted by Parliament on 16 June 2020. Meanwhile, debates and discussions have continued at the highest level of EU law-making, in the European Commission, the European Parliament (2019), and the European Court of Human Rights (see Wodak 2021b). Orbán is thus sliding towards illiberalism and neo-authoritarianism, facilitated by the COVID crisis, which he has been able to instrumentalize for his interests. Thus, Orbán instrumentalizes the COVID-crisis in order to take absolute power. By painting a danger scenario, he argues that only he is able to protect the Hungarian people (authority legitimation); moreover, for a “war against the virus”, it is legitimate to lead “ an army” which he “commands.” Hence, the argument continues, such crisis situations legitimize state of emergency rules (rationalization legitimation).

Conclusion: Lessons for the Future?

43The four frames and the range of legitimation strategies discussed in this paper—resurrection, dialogue, trust, and war—illustrate significantly different ways of coping with the dread of death and emerging fears and anxieties. These frames also point to differing regimes of bio- and body politics, legitimized in significantly different ways: the nation conceptualized as family, with a quasi-Messiah as leader (religious frame, legitimation qua moralization and authorization). We also encountered leaders who talked to their people on an equal level, i.e., establishing a rational dialogue and unifying relationship, full of empathy, with the citizens, employing legitimization via authority and rationalization. The framing with trust implies self-responsibility and no hierarchical leadership (legitimation qua rationalization and moralization) and, finally, “fighting a war” implies emergency situations where leaders carry the entire responsibility, and the people must follow orders (legitimization qua authority and mythopoesis).

44By analyzing the range of legitimation strategies and related argumentation schemes, it is possible to illustrate which distinct ways different politicians have employed to cope with the pandemic. These respective strategies draw on national historical trajectories, on the socio-political contexts, on identity politics, and on different democratic regimes. Moreover, the personality of the politicians plays a salient role. In any case, it would be important—in a next step—to study the effect of the specific strategies in coping with the crisis and the resonance with the people. However, such an investigation will only be possible once the pandemic is over.

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1 This is a shortened and revised version of Wodak 2021b.

2 See, for example, Stråth & Wodak (2009); Powers & Xiao (2008); Huang & Holmgreen (2020).

3 The chosen countries contrast richer and poorer countries (along the North/South divide in the European Union), Western and Eastern European countries, and Sweden as a country which chose a very different way of dealing with the crisis. Here, I focus only on four EU member states and New Zealand due to limitations of space, although the data set also includes Poland, Greece, Italy, and Germany. Of course, the selection nevertheless remains subjective. Moreover, fear of death is reinforced by fear of unemployment and vice versa (e.g., Schmidinger & Weidenholzer 2020). Obviously, more deaths occurred if the health system had suffered significant cuts due to austerity politics like in Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, and the UK.

4 See, for example, Stern (2020); Khoo & Schimpfössl (2020); Novy & Winckler (2020) for analyses of the COVID-19 management in the US, the UK, and Brazil.

5 See Wodak (2021b) for more details about the impact of the “fear of death” in respect to the pandemic and to the choice of frames and legitimation strategies.

6 See Pyszczynski (2004); Triandafyllidou et al. (2009); De Rycker & Mohd Don (2013); Neüff (2018) for examples of nationalizing tendencies in times of crises.

7 For an overview of existing taxonomies, cf. Reisigl and Wodak (2001) and Rheindorf and Wodak (2020).

8 For the entire transcript of the speech, see (accessed 30 July 2020).

9 Johan Carlson, 2 March 2020, “Vi tror att vår strategi är framgångsrik i det här läget. Den bygger på information och kunnande till befolkningen. […] framgångsfaktorn i smittskyddsarbetet är att det bygger på tillit och förtroende. […] Vi har också från början strävat efter att så mycket som möjligt att ett öppet samhälle.”

10 The Public Health Agency of Sweden (2020) also launched a multilingual official website, which was updated almost daily, with a lot of accessible and transparent information.

11 In hindsight, the state epidemiologist Tegnell acknowledged in an interview with Radio Sweden on 2 June 2020 that “if we were to encounter the same disease, with the knowledge we have today, we would probably have to implement a strategy about halfway between what Sweden did and what the rest of the world did.” (Radio Sweden 2020).

12 See also;;

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Ruth Wodak, « Legitimizing Crisis Management during COVID-19 »Argumentation et Analyse du Discours [En ligne], 28 | 2022, mis en ligne le 25 avril 2022, consulté le 21 mai 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Ruth Wodak

University of Lancaster, Universität Wien

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