Covid vs. Wartime Experiences

By Jess Macauley

On 3rd September 1939, the country listened as Neville Chamberlain went on air to tell the nation, ‘this country is at war with Germany’. The announcement was the start of a six-year global war including most of the world’s countries; changing lives forever, leaving no one unaffected.

Seventy-six years after the end of WW2, the nation was once again addressed by the Prime Minister. In his statement Boris Johnson shared the news that people had been dreading, ‘from this evening I must give the British people a very simple instruction – you must stay at home.’ The country was placed in a lockdown with no idea as to when it would end. 

The UK ground to a halt. Roads and streets emptied of people; shops and businesses, unless essential, were forced to close and home with family was considered the safest place to wait out restrictions. 

As in 1939, people across the country were seen pulling together in all manner of ways in an effort to help. Some businesses stopped their usual production of spirits and perfumes to make hand sanitisers; companies switched from manufacturing clothes to making PPE and face masks, which had become increasingly hard to source. The NHS, originally formed after the end of WW2, was put into overdrive with doctors and nurses being called out of retirement and medical students paused their studies, to go and help on the front line. This moment was eerily reminiscent of the call to arms in 1939 to go and fight abroad in dangerous conditions, unprepared for what was ahead.

In April, the Queen addressed the nation, likening the struggles that are currently being experienced worldwide to those felt in the war, ‘it wasn’t easy for us either’. The similarities of living through a global pandemic and a World War are not hard to find. Throughout the year we have seen frequent addresses made to the nation, often with war-like rhetoric, regular updates and news, national and international, listened to live. In wartime Britain, with less technology, people huddled around radios to hear news. I spoke to my Grandma, who remembered that there were not many ways to find out what was going on, and that as a family ‘we’d all sit round the radio and listen to the news’.

We discussed how the experiences now are similar because this is an event which affects everyone, no one is exempt, the effects of the pandemic are felt globally. As in wartime, there is an increased sense of community. People now look out for each other in a way which was previously lost to a global mindset. Neighbours have been brought together, helping with food shops and errands for the vulnerable, clapping for the NHS on a Thursday and chatting on their daily walks. People are united by a shared experience, of being in it together.

But differences are also obvious. In reverse to wartime Britain, we are asked to stay home and not to socialise, whereas in the war people were uprooted from home. People were sent abroad to fight, and children were sent away to safety as evacuees. My Grandma was evacuated from Newcastle with her siblings to North Yorkshire. In contrast to the pandemic, there were no restrictions on socialising. Now, reports of loneliness and isolation have reached new highs. Throughout wartime, public places were kept open at all costs, the attitude was to carry on as normal, to not let it affect everyday life. Great emphasis was placed on not letting the war get in the way of everyday life, a sharp contrast to lockdown.

The effects of the pandemic, widespread and deep seated as they are, are rarely visible when you walk around, no rubble on the streets after an air raid. My Grandma remarked ‘Well there are no bombs being dropped on our heads!’. She also described how ‘my father kept a revolver in a drawer in case the Germans came’- something which we can’t even imagine. We don’t have food shortages, barring the initial lack of loo roll and pasta. But there is a sense of the enemy being within, not across the sea, danger can often feel much closer to home, many people are fearful to an extreme about an invisible enemy. Worldwide, people mourn the loss of loved ones, lost opportunities and life as normal remains on hold.

Life is very different from what we’re used to, living through a global pandemic is not easy and the obvious and hidden effects are prolific. It isn’t hard to liken the current world we live in, to that of war time Britain: the loss of a ‘normal’ life, loved ones and an uncertain future. But perhaps these similarities and relatable experiences are something the older generations can help us learn from when Covid is finally a thing of the past.