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Why this coronavirus crisis needs more keeping calm and less carrying on

Richard Doherty


Comparisons between coronavirus and wartime are not always helpful, but both produce their share of heroes and villains, writes Richard Doherty

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Belfast’s empty streets during the coronavirus crisis, and (right) the Belfast Blitz in 1941

Belfast’s empty streets during the coronavirus crisis, and (right) the Belfast Blitz in 1941

Belfast’s empty streets during the coronavirus crisis, and (right) the Belfast Blitz in 1941

In recent weeks we've been treated to Press conferences and briefings, to a range of advice from public health officials and comments that we are in a "war" situation. Comparisons have been made with the UK's civilian situation during the Second World War. Some media even produced images of wartime posters, such as 'Is your journey really necessary?' Is there any valid comparison with the Home Front in the Second World War?

A critical factor in maintaining wartime public morale was leadership. Winston Churchill will long be remembered for providing leadership, even though it was challenged at times in Parliament and outside.

Part of what Churchill achieved came from force of personality, part from a genuine gift for leadership, and part through a rare facility for language. Indeed, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar last week paraphrased Churchill when he said that, in the weeks to come: “Never will so many ask so much of so few.”

Boris Johnson has been keen to ape Churchill. Virtually guaranteed his place in history - but what a place! - Johnson is no Churchill no matter how much he may think he is. Nor is Donald Trump a shadow of Franklin Roosevelt.

True leadership has been demonstrated by other politicians, with New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, Italy’s Giuseppe Conte and Germany’s Angela Merkel shouldering the burden of responsibility in a situation unprecedented in living memory.

Reporting on the effort to get information to the public has occasionally made reference to wartime practices. The ‘Keep Calm And Carry On’ poster, so often seen as a Second World War icon, has been cited - even though it was never published (nor was that famous 1914 poster of Kitchener, which was a magazine cover rather than a poster).

Information was critical, but there were times when it was not released lest it damage morale. Just over a month after becoming PM Churchill used a D Notice to suppress news of the sinking of the RMS Lancastria in which between 3,000 and 5,500 British personnel lost their lives.

The “Blitz spirit” has also been invoked. That wartime photo of a milkman making his deliveries amid the destruction wrought by overnight bombing has had a few outings. However, we’ve long since known that the photo is staged. The ‘milkman’ was the photographer’s assistant dressed in a white coat and carrying a small crate.

But it helped morale at the time, especially as civilian morale was not always as robust as folk memory suggests. Thus, although in one sense there is a comparison with wartime Northern Ireland, it isn’t one that stands up to rigorous examination.

The spirit that did exist during the Blitz had one critical factor. Those being bombed could huddle together for support. Sharing danger lessens the inherent terror.

There were sing-songs in air raid shelters and the Tube stations (which were taken over by civilians, rather than being designated as official shelters), reflected in the communal singing today in Italy and Spain.

Close contact rather than social distancing was the order of the day and contributed significantly to morale.

As well as the need to maintain social distancing, there is another great difference for the civilian population today compared to that of 80 years ago.

Between 1939 and 1945 the enemy was tangible. The sounds of air raid sirens, of bombers overhead, anti-aircraft guns firing, explosions and buildings collapsing, followed eventually by sirens sounding the all-clear brought that home to everyone.

Outside London, Belfast had the UK’s highest single night’s fatalities during the Blitz. The war also came close to Northern Ireland’s civilian population through the presence of service personnel and bases, as well as news from family members serving in various theatres of war. However, with Covid-19 the enemy is intangible. It can’t be identified readily, except in a list of numbers of dead, and we have had our first two deaths.

In northern Italy the threat is much more real, with the highest death toll of any country so far afflicted.

That Italian army convoy transporting coffins from Bergamo for cremation or burial elsewhere was a harrowing sight and evidence of just how serious is the situation. Do we really want to come to that here?

The invisible ‘enemy’ allows people to diminish or even dismiss the threat. Comments such as “more people are dying from cancer, or TB, than from this thing” aren’t going to provide any protection at all.

Robin Swann’s worst-case nightmare scenario will remain a scenario only if we heed advice, as our predecessors so often did during the Second World War. However, that advice was backed by strict legislation, as with the black-out and rationing; and almost certainly the Government’s legislative package will be needed to enforce stricter rules. There will still be those who know better.

We’ve been here before with a major pandemic. No one now alive remembers it and it was all but erased from folk memory. That was the so-called Spanish Flu of 1918 to 1920, which almost certainly began in the US Army’s Fort Riley in Kansas as a result of chickens and pigs being kept and slaughtered for food.

The first recorded case was a cook at Fort Riley. Eventually the pandemic killed 50 million (some researchers suggest up to 100 million).

Strangely, the Spanish Flu seemed to be forgotten for a long time, except for those affected by it. My family was always aware of it since a neighbour of my maternal grandparents died. From family tradition, I always thought the victim was a child until discovering only recently a new headstone, next to a cousin’s grave, that tells me she was 18 when she died on July 18, 1918.

There was another influenza pandemic in 1957. The Asian Flu, as it was known, killed between a million and two million worldwide. I was almost one of those dead, a fact that I was unaware of until many years later, although I do remember being very ill and kept at home from school for two weeks.

There is, however, one very real parallel with war. Conflict throws up heroes and villains. The villains include the hoarders and those who won’t listen to common sense.

The heroes are, as in Italy and elsewhere, the medical, nursing and ancillary staff of the NHS, itself born of the Second World War.

They are the front line heroes. Behind them are many others: research scientists seeking a treatment; those in the police forces and other public services who are also at increased risk.

We learned much from the Second World War, but forgot many of the lessons. Let us hope that we will learn from this experience and that the world may become a wiser place. I certainly hope so.

Richard Doherty is a military historian and writer

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