Strong views have been expressed against the use of wartime parallels and martial metaphors in media and political discourse about the coronavirus and the “lockdown” measures imposed to slow its spread. In response, some have insisted that Britain is indeed a “nation at war” with a ruthless enemy taking many lives on a daily basis. The war evoked is, of course, World War Two, which saw London come under a rain of bombs dropped from the aircraft of Nazi Germany with barely a break from 7 September 1940 until 11 May 1941 – the phenomenon known as The Blitz.
Are such comparisons valid or useful? Not very. The virus does not obliterate buildings, drive people to shelter underground, or subject Londoners to traumatising explosions. Neither does it threaten subjugation by a foreign power. The current use of the armed forces to move people and equipment around has been invoked to justify fight-for-survival rhetoric, but the Army also lent a hand at the Olympics. By the end of the war, close to 30,000 Londoners had been killed in bombing raids – far more than the Covid-19 outbreak will claim. And the virus, unlike the Luftwaffe, does not kill indiscriminately, because older people and those with particular pre-existing conditions are at greater risk than the young. Also, the war, unlike the pandemic, did not shut down most of London’s economy. Neither were people urged to stay at home and keep away from other people as much as possible.
If calling up the “Blitz spirit” helps fortify some in the face of adversity, fine, but even that was partly myth: plenty of looting went on in London and plenty of Londoners moaned about the government. The famous photo of a milkman doughtily carting a crate through the ruins was staged. All that said, there might be some value in looking back at how wartime Londoners and the authorities dealt with the problem of sagging morale as the Blitz went on and on. Philip Ziegler’s book London At War records that cinemas, initially closed in order to restrict large gatherings that created the potential for large numbers of deaths, were quite quickly reopened because people were bored and depressed. How long before such considerations come into play for those managing the pandemic?
To end, a famous propaganda film about London during the Blitz produced by the British government and narrated by US war correspondent Quentin Reynolds. We hear the menacing hum of approaching bombers and their explosions grimly described as “the symphony of war”. No, the coronavirus crisis is not a war. But it still raises a question the film presumes to know the answer to. Can London can take it?
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