Opinion | Beware of Politicians Who Declare “War” on the Coronavirus

“America strikes the first defensive blow in the battle of the Central Pacific.” There’s something deeply nostalgic about the Second World War, isn’t there? Something comforting about calling back to our finest hour. These guys definitely think so. “It’s a war.” “We are fighting a war on two fronts.” “Nous sommes en guerre.” “We must act like any wartime government.” Yes, apparently, we are at war. Except it’s not Germans we’re fighting this time — it’s germs. But while there are similarities, we should be alarmed when politicians talk like this. It opens windows for flagrant abuses of power. And just weeks into this crisis, it’s already happening. “In World War II, young people in their teenage years volunteered to fight. They wanted to fight so badly.” War is a convenient model for politicians because it conjures up images of a nation making collective sacrifice for a great cause. “And now it’s our time, we must sacrifice —” Which is exactly what they’re asking us to do. But this idea of the country uniting in the face of an existential threat is much more of a myth than we like to admit — a myth born in propaganda and raised on 75 years of patriotic war movies. “All right, saddle up! Let’s back in the war!” Far from being united, Americans were divided about whether to even join the war. Even as France fell to the Nazis, polls showed two-thirds of people were against entering the fight. And let’s not even mention the 20,000 Americans who turned up to Nazi rallies like this one. Nope — despite what the politicians say, war really means division. Wars need enemies, preferably human ones. The 1940s saw a series of measures which quietly deprived Americans of their liberties, all in the name of war. Days after Pearl Harbor, F.D.R. created the Office of Censorship, with the power to monitor private telegrams and telephone calls. And soon after, at least 110,000 Japanese-Americans, were shipped off to camps — all of it justified by wartime urgency. The drama of war lends itself to this kind of black-and-white thinking. Oversight goes down, corruption goes up. And if all of that sounds like an exaggeration, just remember the last time we rushed to call something a war when we didn’t have to. “Our war on terror begins with Al Qaeda, but it does not end there.” In the months following 9/11, secret mass surveillance programs were approved to invade the privacy of ordinary Americans. Innocent Muslim Americans were detained, while thousands of suspects were held at Guantánamo Bay with no due process whatsoever. Look — the top- down restrictions during this pandemic are necessary if we stand a chance of limiting the death toll. But calling this pandemic a war — it’s a useful cover for a power grab. And it happens faster than you think. So politicians like war comparisons because they work in their favor. But you know, there is a way this could work in our favor, too. The coronavirus pandemic’s causing sudden dramatic social upheaval — you can already feel it, right? That sense that life won’t be the same again. And that’s something wars do, too. When they finally end, they create opportunities for rapid social reform. During the Second World War, six million women took on factory jobs while 1.2 million African-Americans served in the fight against fascism. After the war, both groups demanded equal rights with new fervor. And while the struggles took a long time and are still ongoing, the war accelerated them significantly. And take a look at this. Across the pond, F.D.R.‘s ally Winston Churchill, faced huge pressures for change from a nation sick and tired of poverty, unemployment and poor health. They demanded social security and universal health care. Now Churchill, a conservative, resisted. And get this — in an election in 1945, just twelve weeks after he literally defeated Hitler, he was voted out of office. The public wanted change, and they got it. Soon after, the National Health Service was born. Could this pandemic open a window of change for us, too? We’re only weeks in, and already, it’s revealing the inequalities at the heart of our system. Low-paid workers are risking their lives because they don’t get sick pay; undocumented migrants have no support while politicians profit from insider trading. And in the richest country in the world, the insane cost of treatment makes some Americans afraid to even get tested. When all this passes, we might discover that rare gift, a threshold where the status quo has been destroyed, the rules turned upside down, a system exposed as unfit for purpose, and a people who’ve been through hell and have had enough. And in that moment, what will we demand?