The coronavirus outbreak has saturated the news agenda recently and will continue to do so for quite some time. The virus is a real threat to people’s lives and as of 26 March 2020 it has killed 578 in Britain, and probably permanently damaged the functionality of thousands of more people’s organs.
“Britain enlists an army of volunteers to help fight the coronavirus”, said the New York Times while “Boris Johnson is being tested like no leader since Churchill”, was the headline of a recent Sky News article.
And the Prime Ministers speech is certainly suggestive of rhetoric during the Second World War.
“Everyone from the supermarket staff to the transport workers to the carers to the nurses and doctors on the frontline.
“But in this fight we can be in no doubt that each and every one of us is directly enlisted," said Prime Minister Boris Johnson in a national address to the country on Monday 23 March 2020. Now read that second sentence in Churchill's voice...
The obvious reason is that there is a clear enemy. Just as the Nazi’s were the enemy of the Allies during the Second World War, COVID-19 is the enemy of the world and everyone is collectively trying to fight it. This is why combative language fits so elegantly into headlines and speeches.
Another reason is that the measures taken to limit and "flatten the curve" of the coronavirus outbreak are of course similar to the restrictions on travel, the rationing (not quite there yet), and the shutting of schools during WW2.
The third thought is that people come together during hard time to create a sense of belonging and community. While not specifically about pandemics, Sebastian Junger’s Tribe (2016) can partly explain why the rhetoric in the media surrounding this disaster is so similar to the time of war some 75 years ago.
“Acting in a tribal way means being willing to make a substantive sacrifice for your community -- be that your neighborhood, your workplace, or your entire country.” (Tribe, 2016)
The virus has created a sense of purpose; we are all doing our bit by staying at home and avoiding any possible chance of getting ill. Junger says that modern society has seen a huge rise in mental health issues such as post traumatic stress and loneliness, despite being more prosperous overall. These hard times also emphasise intrinsic values (e.g. well-being, community) over extrinsic values (e.g. wealth, consumption), something that is also mentioned in Tribe. WW2 evoked these same feelings and brought people together.
The NHS is worth fighting for. People want to save lives. And this is all done in the face of adversity. This was perfectly demonstrated people clapping from their homes in quarantine with #ClapForTheNHS and #ProudtobeBritish trending on Twitter. Janet Daley's article in the Telegraph outlines how people are repurposing themselves in these times of hardship, but the British character is still getting us through it.
While it may be strange to miss being in uncertain times of adversity, it is not unusual that some people may reminisce on the COVID-19 lockdown after this has all blown over, just as some soldiers in wartime miss being in the midst of battle.
“For many people -- war feels better than peace and hardship can turn out to be a great blessing and disasters are sometimes remembered more fondly than weddings or tropical vacations.” (Tribe, 2016).
However, it must be mentioned that while people are quarantined indoors there are huge problems for some people. Loneliness is a real problem, especially for the older generation, and achieving that sense of belonging is overwhelmingly difficult without human to human interaction. There has also been a 'sharp rise' in the number of calls to Childline.
I recommend everyone giving the short book Tribe a go. It gives an insight into PTS/PTSD that often goes underrepresented in the media.
P.S. Wash your hands.