Opinion

The ‘war’ on coronavirus: comparing COVID-19 and the language of the Great War

The Opinion section is a platform for students to share their personal views about current issues and life at Oxford.

When I began studying the First World War three months ago, I would have struggled to fathom that in a matter of weeks, the same language and phraseology of wartime would be broadcast all over the world as we now face a very different war – against a very different enemy.

Every day, we are confronted with broadcasts and news articles that utilise an increasingly national and international vocabulary that portrays the coronavirus pandemic as a ‘war’ in which we are all ‘fighting’.

Political leaders frequently invoke the language of war in public announcements, from China’s Xi Jinping declaring a “people’s war” on the virus in early February to Emmanuel Macron comparing French health workers to an army, echoing George Clemenceau’s exact phrasing from 1917: “Ils ont des droits sur nous”.

And this lexicon, intended to rally national unity and resilience, goes beyond mere rhetorical metaphor. There are many genuine comparisons to be made between this war against an infectious disease and the Great War over a century ago.

At the “front line”, healthcare professionals put themselves at risk, in some cases tragically making the “ultimate sacrifice” to enable the safety and survival of others. On 11th April, the John Radcliffe hospital in Oxford released the heartbreaking news that two hospital porters, both married to members of the nursing staff, had lost their lives to the virus. Much like the soldiers of the Great War, who increasingly felt that those in military and political leadership were being reckless with their lives, the government’s somewhat laissez faire approach to providing adequate Personal Protective Equipment to NHS staff have led to concerns that critical workers are being treated like ‘cannon fodder’. Calls for PPE chillingly remind me of the troubling reality that, for the first year of conflict, soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force went into combat without protective headwear of any kind, shielded only by a fabric cap until late 1915.

The continued criticism of the response of political leadership in Britain and across the world in combatting this unprecedented challenge – in contrast to the rightful adulation and gratitude expressed towards healthcare and essential workers – suggests that much like the Great War, this period will likely be remembered as one in which ‘lions were led by donkeys’.

The most striking and deeply saddening comparison between this pandemic and war, is of course, the vast scale of human tragedy and loss. The daily statistical report of recorded cases and deaths increasingly feels reminiscent of a body count in battle, numbers which are increasingly blurring into numb obscurity. Like in war, these numbers have now become so large, they have become somewhat detached from the individual tragedies and suffering they represent. Therefore, like in war, we must make a conscious effort to continuously remind ourselves of the value and importance and each and every human life. Pain and suffering on a global scale are united in a community of grief arguably unseen since the global conflicts of the twentieth century.

However, in many ways, this ‘war’ is different. I feel grateful that for people my age, hopefully, the greatest disruption most of us will feel is a temporary period of social distancing, incomparable to the sacrifices my generation would have had to make a century ago. I am thankful that we have the privilege to be able to stay home. Indeed, although in the Great War and this ongoing war to save lives we are all expected to ‘do our bit’, never before have our own decisions been so important to the outcome of a crisis. Each and every one of us has the ability and duty to prevent the further spread of this invisible enemy.  

Finally, the significance of this global pandemic and our ability to defeat it undoubtedly transcends the narrow-minded politics and aggressive nationalism that characterised the attitude of the combatant nations of the First World War and subsequent wars. This challenge is about saving as many lives as possible, not sacrificing them for some intangible ideal. We will not look back on the lives lost and the sacrifices given as a wasted cause.

And the response to Covid-19 must be a global battle, in which every nation in the world should collectively fight to beat this universal enemy. We cannot make peace with this virus. While the First World War aimed to divide, despite the necessity of social distancing and isolation, as a global community, we couldn’t be more united now.