Thought Babble

“We Shall Fight Them From Our Houses…” The Pandemic’s Worrying Wartime Parallels

The struggle against the coronavirus over the past few months has consistently been defined as a “war” in Europe. Beyond Donald Trump’s insistence on qualifying as a “Wartime President”, Emmanuel Macron declared France “at war”, so too did Boris Johnson when stating that the British Government will “act like in wartime”. Decidedly, some in Europe are treating the virus as a physical enemy and their policies as battle strategy – but what does this mean for the new theatre of battle itself?  

While there are some similarities in policy between life during wartime and the current struggle when it comes to government policy, no one would be blamed for thinking that this loose analogy is used by leaders to serve some other purpose. This doesn’t have to be for some malicious conspirators intent, and in fact, it is likely usefully benign in its assurance that people take stay-at-home orders seriously. The Queen of England even made such comparisons in a speech imploring the people of the UK to “do their bit”. 

An Excuse for Extreme Measures?

However, there are some other more concerning repercussions of viewing the virus in this light. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has even been given emergency powers by the National Parliament, adopting Rule by Decree with no set end date, a practice wholly uncommon within the constraints of peacetime. Decidedly, some in Europe surely are treating the virus as a physical enemy and their policies as battle strategy, but what does this mean for the new theatre of battle itself?

Orban’s emergency powers are justified using this analogy, and while one can hope that this precaution is useful in Hungary, it is far too early to tell how the Prime Minister will treat this newfound unbridled power. While on paper, he is as constitutional as they come, his somewhat contradictory close relations with both Benjamin Netanyahu and Vladimir Putin, and increasingly autocratic tendencies and have caused some critics to label him as strongman and dictator before he even claimed Rule by Decree earlier this year.

Moreover, given the murky timeframe of when the virus will actually be defeated, and even murkier definition of what it even implies to “defeat” a disease, it is far too early to guess when or if these powers will be given up in the near future. 

Are We “At War”

Declaring a country “at war” leaves a rightfully confused populace with two immediate questions. The first of these is this:

Who are we fighting?

“The Virus”, comes an obvious response, but this answer is unfulfilling and vague. For thirty years, our western leaders and the press have presented our enemies as desert-dwelling combatants armed with Kalashnikovs, whose bearded faces and harsh foreign consonants are wholly other to ours. It was decided after 9/11, by fault or design,  that the enemy needs a face. Now, it seems that new ones are chosen, perhaps by algorithm, for us. Perhaps this is why certain Americans are protesting so ardently, viewing the coronavirus as the biggest threat to their freedom since ISIS, condoning “stay at home” orders as a projected victory for the enemy.

Equally, there is a global temptation to deem China responsible. Could they have stopped this before it got so critical? More locally, however, there are other divisions that emerge as we try to fabricate a visible enemy. Strained relations between nations may be imminent. While I doubt we will see price gouging scandals causing these rifts – as they have been in the Far East – largely due to the fact that the factories producing necessary equipment are less abundant in Europe, issues will arise later in time.

For example, while there seems to be no significant mood within Spain critical of Portugal’s lack of assistance – in spite of their gravely different infection and mortality rates. However, when Portugal is able to salvage its tourist industry, relax its lockdown and get ready for the Summer Holiday Season, likely leaving its Iberian neighbour behind, it is easy to imagine further tensions to crystalise with the economic disparity. 

The second question is:

If this is a war where is the battlefield?

“Hospitals” again, is provided by world leaders as their thanks for nurses become lackluster salutes, and footage of busy intensive care units is paired with the music normally reserved for Hellmann province…

Hospitals aren’t quite as glamorous as deserts, but they are much closer to home. And along with a natural atmosphere of noisy, fluorescent-lit dread which most of us have experienced at some point, this familiarity makes them suitable replacements. However, there are of course additional fronts to this war within the European Theatre of Battle. 

For instance, within your own four walls – where self-isolation is the mission brief.

And another is on the high street, where chains and businesses are facing greater struggles than securing supermarket delivery slots.

Corporation Casualties

This is most likely the front with the most casualties: Eastern Europe, ravaged by Nazi Occupation as the Virus puts business to a halt. Much has been said about the occupation already, with many economists having observed the largest ever collapse in euro-zone business activity and labelling it as the largest economic downturn since the Great Depression, even worse than the post-war economy. 

Reported figures illustrate such losses, with businesses of all sizes affected as they are either unable to operate entirely, or even if that can remain open, face difficulties with ensuring supply, and even worse odds in the demand of a market which is, for the foreseeable future, solely focussed on the necessary. Every day it seems, a new industry is under threat. Firstly travel, at the start of March. FlyBe, the first eastern conquest of the Nazi regime, solidified then with the falterings of TUI, which sought international intervention and was granted a €1.8 billion loan later that month. 

Learning from Previous Economic Blows?

We can’t help but dread the shape the economy will likely take after coronavirus. Yet again, it seems apt to examine how the continent dealt with their last great foe, and how exactly the economy recovered after the Second World War. The “economic miracle” is the term most commonly given to this process; notably defined by greater international cooperation, governmental spending within the public sphere on national works, and the mechanisation of both industry and daily life. 

France experienced the ‘Trente Glorieuses’, when an increase in living conditions and household luxuries across class boundaries made its standard of living among the highest in the world, even though much of the nation had been a battlefield just a decade prior. Italy saw its GDP double between 1950 and 1960, largely due to migration from the rural south to the metropolitan north, leading directly to its powerhouse motor exports industry, a trade so valuable Italy saw the second greatest rates of growth in all Europe. West Germany saw the greatest economic boom, however, when government investment on key industries paired with and a sharp tax cut on the moderate incomes to allow for greater spending also served to stabilise regional economics with contributions to the newly created European Economic Community. 

However, one undercurrent below the success of the post-war- economy in Europe was US aid offered by the Marshall Plan. American investment in Europe and its own subsequent prosperity reveal to us now the true victor of the Second World War, as the profits gained from the war were more than just economic for the United States. Securing the success of its own ideology against growing Communist threats, the ensuing Golden Age of Capitalism and post-war global decolonisation movement which rang the death bell for the Western European colonial order which had dominated international discourse before now, the USA rose up to a place of unparalleled global importance.

Perhaps, rather than an individual nation, ideology itself was the true champion of the war. While one was defeated and left behind in Nazi Germany, it was not just the capitalist USA but also the communist USSR that seized the opportunity to grow and expand – the tentacles of both new powers dividing the spoils of the freshly divided Europe. Both developing industry in the regions of the minds they had conquered, facilitating growth, and forwarding their own national agendas, albeit with significantly different methods.

One is left to wonder what form the profiteers of the current war will take – and if they will jump at the occasion to reshape the world order in their image once it is finally over. 

Profiting from the Pandemic?

Of course, not all is tarnished by war – just as some sectors are thriving thanks to COVID-19, as people turn to particular services such as virtual working platforms, at-home entertainment, and grocery suppliers more and more. Corona profiteers are not difficult to spot, as while some businesses are bleeding, others are seeing unrivalled growth in stock prices. Corporations with a significant digital presence hold the most to gain, along with the pharmaceutical companies that have the most immediate new market open up to them: the vulnerable and the scared.

Streaming services like Netflix seem almost certainly to benefit – offering services that seem more necessary with every passing day, and using more the USA’s carrot rather than the USSR’s stick to increase their market share in these difficult times. Besides, long-term impacts on the entertainment industry will be evident across the board as production is halted and release dates are pushed back, perhaps becoming truly evident with an entertainment drought in Autumn 2021 lest studios spread their properties out for year wide release, which in truth is likely. 

However, it’s easy to see how Amazon will proceed to behave much more like the Politburo in its future acquisitions. It’s important to remember that during the war, that which would become the Red Menace was an invaluable ally in the European War effort. Similarly, as Amazon delivers both victuals and distractions from the outside. On the highstreet, first the florist (Czechoslovakia, perhaps) then the boutique, (let’s call this one Poland), are the first collective casualties – consumed by the red tide – also known as the less intimidating-sounding Amazon Flowers and Amazon Fashion.

A bigger store from my home country, yet no less vulnerable: the British department store Debenhams, its own shares divided by other competitors, here becomes East Germany – and heralds the overdue but true death of the department store. One could argue that it is not Amazon at fault here, but ‘Corporate Darwinsim.’ As the weaker businesses now crumble in the harsh economic climate, they are naturally replaced by the competitors who thrive. Anyhow, Darwinist models have proven troubling when applied to anything outside of nature… since the theory of evolution, pivotal as it was, paints the world as little more than statistics: devoid of compassion, violent, selfish, and ultimately Hobbesian.

The Bottom Line

Just as Politburo ruled from a secure Moscow palace, leading to Red Army in a noble cause for a more conceited triumph – it is not Amazon shouldering the troubles now. Rather, it is the “frontline” key workers tasked with storming the Reichstag.

But when the flag of pestilence is cut down from the palisades, what shall be raised in its stead?

The post-corona order may very well be defined by ‘corporationism’ as the long recovery starts should it again be decided by the victors. Where ideology thrived after wars passed, now too, keep an eye out for the expansion of the new global giants; adding to the 27 out of 44 European nations Amazon is currently available in may well be the first step to the creation of Premier Bezos’ Union of Consumerist Republics…

Cyrus Azimy
Cyrus is a UK-based History and International Relations graduate from King's College London. Having specialised in North American and Middle Eastern politics, he also studied for a semester at Berkley, and now strives to explore sociopolitical parallels - both across time periods, and the world's regions.

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