COVID-19 has no parallel in war. Our language should reflect this

Comment National Issues

Image description: Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Prime Minister Boris Johnson clapping outside 10 Downing Street

It has become something of a trend to compare the COVID-19 crisis to war, with Donald Trump labelling himself “a wartime president”, Emmanuel Macron telling the French people: “nous sommes en guerre”, and New York governor Andrew Cuomo referring to health workers as “troops”.

President Trump recently tweeted: “The world is at war with a hidden enemy. WE WILL WIN!” Governments are now war cabinets, politicians are generals and the general public the infantry, the men on the ground, those on the front line –  which carries just the same implications as it ever did. They are the ones taking the shots and sustaining the injuries.

The use of such phrases is a throwback to WWI and WWII and do much to bolster an idea of British exceptionalism. The metaphors perpetuate the idea that any hardship can be overcome with sheer grit, determination and the pure, unadulterated brilliance of the British people.

There is nothing useful or valid in this language. As Emily Maitlise said recently, grit and determination are not what will get us through this crisis. What we need are vaccines and isolation, more PPE equipment and a long-term funding rethink for the NHS. We do not need candle-lit vigils of WWII Blitz anthems and a ‘stiff upper lip’.

This is not of course only a British problem. The US Surgeon General, Jerome Adams, likened coronavirus to Pearl Harbour and indeed it seems the current crisis, like that fateful day in 1941, was something the US was ill-prepared for and produced a knee-jerk reaction. Only this time, it’s Trump who claims to be a wartime president and is dealing out quack anti-malarial cures.

What this language fails to acknowledge that this is not a war. The enemy is not someone that can be bombed into submission. There is no ceasefire or peace process. What it fails to acknowledge is that the frontline workers do not have the “weapons” they need to save lives.

I fear not a swing to the left, but a continuation of the current status quo and the resulting neglect of the public sector.

All of this leads to a reduction in accountability. Despite the warnings and the examples of China, Italy, and Spain, the government failed to act accordingly. And although there is some clamour of criticism, much of it is being drowned out by the roar of support for Boris Johnson while he recovers from a bout of the illness.

Everyone in these times of terror look towards the person in the top job, who seems to adopt the strongman view of history. There is less scrutiny because ours are deemed “exceptional circumstances” and this allows the government to do less and get away with more. Opposition structures feel unable to properly speak out against any perceived government failures because they will be seen as against the national effort and the front-line health workers, and so, they silently acquiesce.

The “war” on coronavirus has produced a response, slow as it may have been, and it has scared people into accepting these strange circumstances for the greater good. It has also had the effect of provoking panic buying, as toilet paper flies off the shelves. It also raises fears over the scapegoating of already marginalised groups and increased racial tensions, as is often the case with unexpected and serious pandemics.

The implication for Oxford ought to be a mobilisation of funds. It is an opportunity to turn its large collective fortune towards helping to meet some of the PPE shortfalls. All the staff still working should be fully supported and protected. Many students felt that the University wasn’t as clear as quickly as it could have been and so this may be a watershed moment where the University re-evaluates its crisis response.

For the wider UK, Labour leader Keir Starmer has called for a reckoning but with the current government still in office for four more years it may not be the reckoning he imagines. Unlike after WWII, there is unlikely to be a Beveridge Report or an overhaul in the NHS funding model.

Of course, there’ll be the usual lip service, but the government will slowly fall back into their traditional spending patterns. All the while they will herald this as a great victory; when the nation came together under the leadership of Boris Johnson as a second Churchill and come election time this narrative will be bandied about to their heart’s content. The opposition will be unable to substantially rebuke it. I fear not a swing to the left, but a continuation of the current status quo and the resulting neglect of the public sector.

Is the current corona policy yet again another example of lions led by donkeys?

Image credit: UK Prime Minister @ Flickr