Coronavirus and World War Two (with some thoughts from Corporal Jones)

It’s probably inevitable that comparisons are being made between life now during the Coronavirus pandemic and aspects of life in Britain during WW2.

A social commentator writing in the Daily Herald in early 1940 observed that ‘the majority of the population has heeded the advice disseminated by government and has set about the business of preparedness and adaption to the challenges facing us. The few however seem indifferent and they will need to be bought in to line if we are to succeed in our collective endeavours.’

Often referred to as ‘The Emergency’ by civilian organisations and government departments, WW2 was to reshape daily life and the future, for everyone, without exception. 

The Ministry of Information (MOI) produced thousands of advisory and information posters that were widely displayed  especially in public places like Underground Stations. The messages famously included ‘make do and mend’, ‘grow you own’, ‘eat in moderation’ and of course ”coughs and sneezes spread diseases’. 

The only difference between then and now perhaps is the the two metre distancing rule has replaced ‘in a raid open your door to passers by – they need shelter too’.

Retired emergency services personnel were re-called, rationing was introduced and local groups including the Women’s Institute, the Home Guard and Scouts and Guides were mobilised for a range of duties.

Gas masks (respirators) were issued and one of the many leaflets delivered to every household gave instructions on staying safe. 


 

Public transport continued to provide a service until restrictions were introduced initially under the banner ‘Is Your Journey Really Necessary?’ Later travel by rail was reserved for key workers and service personnel and local bus services were reduced. On the outbreak of war, places of entertainment, theatres, cinemas and music halls, were closed to avoid mass assemblies. However, the need to maintain public morale through entertainment was soon recognised and with safety measures in place, these venues re-opened.

Rationing ensured a steady supply of foodstuffs albeit limited to the essentials, supplemented to an extent by the results of the Dig for Victory Campaign which turned plots of land including some railway embankments into vegetable garden plots.

There was also the spivs of the black market, immortalised by Dad’s Army’s Private Walker. However, most people were happy to share and barter. There are few reports of widespread panic buying or hoarding although it probably happened. We must remember, though, that the wartime generation listened to and followed advice because they didn’t question its validity. Curfews were followed and black-out instructions enforced. Official advice is now treated with a good deal more scepticism than it was in the 1940s.

During WW2, the Holidays at Home initiative obliged local authorities and then, a little later, invited community groups to provide events and things for people to do in their villages and towns. Of course, there was no two-metre rule, yet the principle was the same as now – is your journey really necessary?

Yet it was common sense and community spirit that bonded the population through thick and thin and through some of the darkest days in the country’s history. This year is the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day which was to have been rightly celebrated in grand style in memory of all those that endured the war years. The national celebrations in London and many if not all the local and regional events planned have been cancelled because of the prevailing emergency. Yet underpinning this is our ability to ‘pull through’ and ‘carry on’, many excellent demonstrations of which are to be found here in our area.

Takeaway meals from local pubs, fresh meat and vegetable boxes from retailers, help from an army of volunteers willing to shop, the collection of prescriptions, dogs taken for a walk and help with a variety of essential jobs and at least one local shop-owner restocking with essentials on what seems like a daily basis – these are some of the things I’ve seen from local providers, despite these in many cases not being sustainable business models. 

As I write this, I am sure there are others who are preparing to post details of how they can help the community in the same way. (Three regularly-updated articles on this very website cover volunteer groups in the area, financial advice for businesses and a list of organisations providing delivery and/or take-away services.) 

Whilst there is understandable concern and disbelief about those who ignore best advice, they are thankfully in the minority. In the 1940s there was no respect for people who were seen as draft-dodgers. In 2020, the same opprobrium should perhaps be reserved for those who hold public BBQs, insult supermarket staff, indulge in panic-buying or resort to coronavirus scams.

A useful point of view is to see the Coronavirus threat as being on a level with that posed by WW2. What the societal changes might be as a result is not worth worrying about at the moment. The trick is how we get through it. Like it or not, the lessons of WW2 might have something useful to teach us about this. 

Perhaps we can look to Dad’s Army for our inspiration. Private Fraser’s recurring advice was  ‘we’re doomed!’ Corporal Jones’ was ‘don’t panic!’ History suggests that, not without considerable effort and sacrifice, Jonesy was right.

John Leete

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