I recently heard Ohio Governor Mike DeWine compare the Covid outbreak in the US to the WWII attack on Pearl Harbor. He was trying to galvenize the current generations together in the way that the Greatest Generation, who grew up during the Great Depression, had come together in World War II. As too many people were out socializing when our leaders were imploring us to spatially distance ourselves from others, he was essentially asking us to be like our grandparents and great grandparents. These elders know what it takes to get through hard times, which entails making personal sacrifices. In similar fashion, the very vocal New York Governor Andrew Cuomo compared the War on Covid to World War II, attempting to get stray New Yorkers to get on board with spatial distancing requirements. Both leaders were coming from the right place, trying to communicate that the collective survival of our family members required a new level of cooperation. But why must we make the pandemic into a war against an invisible enemy in order to unify?
It seems that whenever a public figure really wants people to listen to them, they invoke a sloppy comparison to WWII. But both governors were conjuring the wrong war. The closest comparison we have is the 1918 Flu which emerged in Italy, Spain, France, and in the US (in Kansas). While there isnʻt a concesus on where the 1918 flu first originated, it was dubbed the “Spanish Flu” because the media in Spain were the first to report on itʻs emergence. The 1918 flu was already spreading through several parts of Europe and in the US when Spain started reporting it, however censorship laws suppressed any news stories that could negatively impact World War I efforts. The 1918 Flu pandemic is the closest histrocial comparison that we have and yet leaders are trying . Whatʻs unique about the Covid Flu outbreak is that it is not happening during a global war. Yet our leaders are making it i to another war. Let’s not miss the opportunity to learn how to come together for our mutual survival without a war. Covid is that opportunity.
This will be a hard thing for humanity to give up, because war is something we know and a pandemic is filled with so much uncertainty. When a soldier is shooting at you, you know that they’re shooting at you. With a lack of adequate testing, was don’t know who has the Coronavirus. The other reason that giving up the war metaphor for the Covid pandemic is so difficult is that hospital workers, grocery store and drugstore workers, and eateries doing carry out all feel like they are on the frontlines. War is appealing to their survival mode, even if it’s not a perfect fit for the reality of a pandemic.
As a documentarian who has interviewed many Pearl Harbor survivors for Sakura & Pearls: Healing from WWII, I cringed when I heard Gov. DeWineʻs rushed comparison of Covid to the Attack on Pearl Harbor. It gave no consideration to Japanese American families who were sent to internment camps during WWII, nor any sensitivity to our current allies in Japan who can help us develop medical interventions to address the Coronavirus. They’ve survived more recent outbreaks than in The US and have procedures that we could adopt. War demands that we choose a side and galvanize as a nation against other nations. It breaks us up into large groups of adversaries instead of unifing is as one humanity. Global cooperation and international aid is required to mitigate Covid, because helping a current enemy nation now means we can prevent the spread of a second wave of Covid later. This saves lives everywhere. This is the essential lesson that we learned from the 1918 Influenza where New York city saw a particularly harsh 2nd wave if the flu and Australia got hit with a third wave. Cooperation saves lives. Unity is the result of consistent cooperation.
We need to stop calling the Covid pandemic a War on Covid. This outbreak is an opportunity to come together in an unprecented global unity. We need a World Wide Unity that inspires us to overcome our selfishness in times of survival. This isn’t a war, simply because wars are man-made. While how we interact with wildlife and the natural environment absolutely needs to be re-evaluated, mankind didn’t directly create this novel Coronavirus. To survive it, we need to all come together, without picking a side, because all of our families are at risk regardless of where you live.
Covid is it’s own historic event that will awaken a new awareness in humanity. We can learn to learn to unify without making another War in our minds. The first priority is of course is to mitigate the virus, including social distancing/self quarantine, and developing a vaccine and anti-viral medications. We want to save as many lives as possible. On this primary goal, we can all agree.
But the governorsʻ calling upon civilians to be more like soldiers, firing their guns at the enemy, is not the right message to bring us together. The right message is that weʻre all important helpers who can shield our families from Covid. A shield is not a sword to cut our adversary, nor is it a gun to kill an invisible foe. The shield is a symbol of sheltering in place and protecting our clinicians, workers, and neighbors from exposure to the virus. This is done through the defensive actions of spatial distancing and santitation practices.
Covid is teaching us that weʻre all important to our mutual survival. Whether you are a barrista who is wiping down counters with disinfectants or a worker at our grocery store who frequently washes their hands, you too are helping to save lives. You are preventing the spread to your customers. Those cleans hands are serving food to our essential doctors, nurses, and medical staff.