It is always dangerous when facing a crisis to invoke war as an analogy. War is chaos. War, as Thomas Hobbes and those with personal experience know, is limitless death and destruction. By definition, it comprises uncontrollable, random events occurring in a vacuum when the laws and conventions that bind people and societies in peacetime no longer apply.
Politicians, scientific experts and commentators who now routinely resort to wartime metaphors, images and language to describe the battle against Covid-19 do so at their peril. And yet few heed the danger. “We are at war,” the French president, Emmanuel Macron, declared repeatedly in a national address last week – ignoring the fact that any talk of war is inherently scary.
Donald Trump, who dodged the Vietnam draft, now pretentiously calls himself a “wartime president”. Boris Johnson, another man who never wore uniform, suggests the country is fighting a second Battle of Britain. Cringeworthy newspaper headlines summon up the “blitz spirit”, recycling 1940’s propaganda.
In some key respects, a war and a pandemic do pose similar challenges and require similar responses. In Albert Camus’s 1947 novel, La Peste (The Plague), the initially unbelievable spread of a lethal disease in a small town serves as an allegory for human suffering in the fascist era. “We find it hard to believe in a pestilence when it descends upon us,” he wrote. Camus continued: “There have been as many plagues in the world as there have been wars, yet plagues and wars always find people equally unprepared. When war breaks out, people say: ‘It won’t last long, it’s too stupid.’ And war is certainly too stupid, but that doesn’t prevent it from lasting. Stupidity always carries doggedly on.”
War is not only stupid. It is by its nature divisive. And divisions spawned by Covid-19 are everywhere: in last week’s ugly blame game between the US and China; in the closing of Europe’s and America’s borders to “foreigners”; in the failure, as Gordon Brown says, of the international community to join forces effectively.
The language of war divides communities. For each volunteer supplying food to the elderly, there are legions of panicked shoppers stripping supermarkets in a particularly stupid bid to pre-empt “wartime” rationing. In rural France, signs warn fleeing Parisians to go elsewhere – a disturbing echo of actual events during the Nazi occupation.
The familiar, often unjustified democratic compromises that accompany real wars are already evident in the fight against Covid-19. Governments around the world assumed emergency powers last week, limiting human rights such as freedom of movement and in some cases, freedom of speech. From Peru to Italy, troops took to the streets.
Claiming to be bolstering safety yet feeding fear, politicians cite a vast threat from an “invisible enemy”. As in an actual war, they deem collateral damage to be unfortunate but inevitable. All victims of coronavirus are innocent – yet some, like those thrown out of work or left penniless by arbitrary government decrees, are more innocent than others.
Wartime democracy may be further compromised by the prospective suspension of parliaments and courts, and the postponement of elections. Local polls in France and Britain have been put off, as was last week’s Democratic primary in Ohio. A question mark hovers over November’s US presidential election. Having dismissed the virus as a hoax, Trump now wants to bribe voters with cash handouts.
Other institutional casualties in this new world of strife include the western churches, which have closed their doors to worshippers, as have mosques in Islamic countries. If there is a strong message of faith to be found in the anxiety, misery and death attendant on the pandemic, it has yet to be widely heard. This is a secular war, waged in temporal time.
As in past global conflicts, rivalrous allies are competing for postwar advantage. Western critics accuse China of trying to weaponise apparently successful suppression policies in Hubei to showcase the advantages of centralised, authoritarian governance over less organised democratic models.
Europe and Trump’s America are at odds on several fronts. Winning the battle with the virus is important. But for some, winning the wider geopolitical and moral argument may be more so.
In this epic global confrontation – some even call it the third world war – symbolism matters. That’s why Japan and sporting bodies are desperate that the Tokyo Olympics do not succumb. The Games have become the Covid-19 Stalingrad equivalent. “Not a step back” is their borrowed, desperate motto.
It’s too soon to start naming war heroes. But Chris Whitty, Britain’s chief medical adviser – the “man with our lives in his hands”, as the BBC calls him – and the Imperial College epidemiologist, Neil Ferguson, have shown bravery under fire.
When countries take up arms, an abiding question for those required to make sacrifices concerns the sort of society they want when it’s all over. The war of Covid-19 has already produced some startling shifts, such as increased political and business support for universal basic income, state controls and environmentally friendly home working.
Radical social upheaval may be the welcome price of eventual victory. It’s often said, after a major conflict, that things will never be the same again. Nor should they be. Historically, war often leads to revolution. Armchair generals Trump and Johnson please note.
• Simon Tisdall is an Observer columnist