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Blitz spirit won’t help ‘Win the Fight’ against Covid-19

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Boris Johnson has described the fight against Covid-19 in terms of war. He has pledged that his administration will ‘act like any wartime government’ and has sought to reassure the public that the country has the ‘resolve and resources to win the fight’.

We have the resolve and the resources to win the fight against #Coronavirus pic.twitter.com/g1SnxlMEzV

— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) March 18, 2020

The wartime analogy has been woven throughout the Prime Minister’s public addresses. Covid-19 has been described as a deadly enemy, direct parallels have been made with the Second World War, and social media posts consciously invoke wartime language and formatting. For a good example, see the leaflet ‘If the Invader Comes’, which was sent to every household in Britain in June 1940.

Johnson has also been compared to his hero Churchill, for better or worse.

There is some substance to these analogies. Alongside sweeping economic measures and the transformation of schools into spaces of community childcare, the government have published an emergency bill containing powers unparalleled in times of peace. Commentators – including Dame Vera Lynn, no less – have also called for a new ‘Blitz spirit’.

As a historian of the Second World War, I have been thinking about such comparisons since the Covid-19 crisis in the UK escalated late last week. Discussing the topic with students and colleagues, while trying to move teaching online, we agreed that it was difficult to identify precedents and concluded that comparisons often fall down in practice. The scariest thing about the crisis is that it all seems so unknown.

Comparisons with the Blitz are fraught with difficulty as they invoke an event that was mythologised as it happened. This is not to say outright that there was no Blitz spirit; rather, that people’s reactions were shaped by a variety of factors. The government, the media, people’s families and friends, pre-war expectations, and personal experiences all shaped the way that bombing was experienced. As Richard Overy has so eloquently explained, these factors have also shaped the way the Blitz has been remembered, disguising the awful reality of being bombed.

Despite this, I remain convinced that there are things we can learn from the example of the Second World War.

If we take the comparison at face value, the UK has not yet reached its Blitz. In the past week, we have moved from appeasement, through re-armament, into a period of phoney war, and are now in a situation broadly equivalent to the early summer of 1940. We can see what’s coming and we are not sure yet sure how prepared our defences will be.

It is worth noting that even Winston Churchill’s government faced criticism for a lack of leadership and poor crisis communication. In response, the government sought to provide citizens with a sense of purpose. It encouraged volunteers to join organisations like the Home Guard, expanded a drive for National Savings, and even called on housewives to donate aluminium cookware to make planes. It is here that the analogy starts to fall down. 

It is true that the Blitz represented a very real threat, as ordinary people found themselves on the ‘Front Line’. Official figures for 1940-41 estimate that 8,200 tons of bombs were dropped on London alone. Across the UK, 43,000 civilians lost their lives (a figure that was higher than the number of military casualties during the same period). These numbers are significantly smaller than some of the scenarios modelled for the impact of Covid-19 in the UK.

As importantly, civilian responses to the Blitz suggest the importance of social unity, imagined or not. Surveys carried out on behalf the government’s Ministry of Information show that reactions to bombing were often shaped by local conditions. Work that I have undertaken with Dr Jessica Hammett on Air Raid Precautions similarly suggest that people’s emotional connection to their local community could determine whether or not they volunteered for Civil Defence. It could be even more difficult to encourage active citizenship during a period of social distancing.

What can we take from this? For me, at least, the most important lesson is that the Second World War does not hold all the answers. In fact, in the fight against Covid-19, the myth of the Blitz could be actively dangerous. You cannot kill a virus by being cheerful and the scientific data suggests that a complacent approach to social distancing could make a difference between life and death.

Instead of invoking a Blitz spirit and hoping for active citizenship, we need to define a Coronavirus spirit of our own. Action, community, and social distance need not be mutually exclusive. There are examples of people doing this for themselves. Boris Johnson’s government – like Winston Churchill’s – would be well-advised to validate and scale these activities as quickly as they can.

Note: an earlier version of this piece appeared on Leeds Beckett University's School of Cultural Studies and Humanities Blog. This version has been updated to reflect latest developments.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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