Having been a war correspondent much of my life, I can’t shake the feeling that the war against the coronavirus is a lot like the real thing.
Normally, I would avoid using a war metaphor for a medical disaster, if only because it has been so loosely applied by so many politicians doomed to failure: Consider Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty, Nixon’s war on cancer and his war on drugs, which Ronald Reagan escalated, making it an unending “war” to this day.
But the coronavirus war is something new, if only in the terrible toll it has taken in lives and the way it has altered the lives of the rest of us.
Like so many others in New York, to which I retreated months ago for surgery and a long recuperation, I now suddenly find myself in quarantine to be sure I don’t acquire the coronavirus. Not since the siege of Sarajevo three decades ago have I been forcibly cooped up in the same building for weeks, afraid to step outside for fear of some life-changing — or life-ending — encounter.
And I live with the same sense that my personal liberty, freedom of movement and right to life have been stripped from me.
Having covered most of the major wars since Cambodia in 1979, I do feel as if I’m in a war, or at least in a war zone. In Sarajevo, if you stepped out the door, Serbian snipers would put a bullet in you, always aiming for the head. And so you just stared at the door and yearned to go through it, but didn’t dare.
The current battle against a deadly virus feels just as dangerous, but without sharpshooters. The homeless panhandler who spat in my direction during my one brief foray outdoors (to a mailbox) wasn’t nearly as good a shot as a Serbian sniper, thank God.
Now we all worry about stepping outside and getting coughed upon by the wrong person. One of the most horrifying pictures to come out of the pandemic so far has been of a packed subway car in the London Underground, with everyone cheek to jowl and no one wearing a mask. You could just imagine the virus jumping between people.
Then there is a comparison of leadership. A well-known adage says that even the best of plans in war does not survive the first bullet fired. Now two unprepared national leaders who have never themselves gone to war, President Trump and Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, have put their efforts to control the pandemic — at least verbally — on a par with the tactics of generals, as if they had comparable knowledge of combat.
Indeed, Mr. Johnson described himself as leading a “wartime government” even before he became a casualty of Covid-19. Now the prime minister can even be rated a veteran, mercifully released from hospital treatment to complete his recovery, and his pregnant fiancée, Carrie Symonds, might be classed as “collateral damage”— that horrible 20th-century term, having apparently contracted the disease from her wartime leader. President Trump, more clumsily, has appropriated for himself the title of wartime leader. He even trotted out the much derided Vietnam War trope that he could see light at the end of the tunnel — an official lie repeated over and over again back in the 1960s to excuse repeated military failure. Evidently, Mr. Trump was unfamiliar with what the doubters said then: that any light in that tunnel was probably the headlight of an oncoming train.
More deserving of respect for their knowledge and courageous experience are the genuine heroes on the “front lines” in the intensive-care units — and the Spaniards and French people, God bless them, who inspired many New Yorkers to publicly applaud their medical personnel daily. Unfortunately, for every self-sacrificing front-line nurse or emergency room doctor, there are also legions of government officials squabbling in an unseemly display of another truism — that war brings out the best in men and women, and the worst in their governments and leaders.
See, for example, the rhetoric of Mr. Johnson and Mr. Trump. They have chillingly described their efforts as a war against an invisible enemy. So what else is new to any soldier? In war, you fight an invisible enemy whether it’s a guerrilla in the mountain or the sniper in his hide or a pilot at 10,000 feet, since the whole point of the exercise is to not be seen by your enemies so that you can kill them but they can’t kill you. In the war against the coronavirus, this rings particularly true and will do so until we have a vaccine.=
Does that make this medical war better or worse than a traditional shooting war? About the same. In both, the norms of civilized conduct among people break down and rights quickly go out the window and everyone goes along with that. On the scale of American casualties the coronavirus war is right up there with all of our recent shooting wars. Johns Hopkins has the American death toll at around 45,000 so far, which is not much less than the 20-year tally of Americans who gave their lives in Vietnam and whose names are etched in the Vietnam Memorial Wall: 58,318.
Simon Tisdall, a columnist for The Guardian, pointed out a trenchant passage from the French philosopher Albert Camus’s novel “The Plague”: “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.”
Sadly, so do plagues.
In Britain, the National Health Service has called for “an army of volunteers, especially medical personnel,” invoking patriotic propaganda campaigns from the World War II era. “Your NHS needs you!” the posters read. And as in World War II, there are great hopes that American industrial might will again carry the day, this time by churning out tens of thousands of ventilators, millions of face masks, perhaps even billions of quick coronavirus tests and ultimately vaccines.
So far, only bits of that have come to pass, amid complaints that “front line” medical personnel were having to wash their face masks by hand and use plastic trash bags for hospital gowns. “When you’re at war, you arm troops before they come under fire,” Chris Cuomo, a CNN anchor who contracted Covid-19 and is the brother of New York State’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, lamented on the air.
In fact, there have been plenty of shooting wars in which soldiers complained of a lack of P.P.E. — personal protective equipment — a military acronym that the medical profession has now picked up.
In addition, we have seen things that would have been unthinkable only a year ago, such as government measures that have millions of people, most of them poor and out of work, effectively incarcerated in their homes. Such arbitrary uses of state power also feel creepily familiar from other wars, however justified they are in the efforts to stop the virus. If they work, some lives may be saved, but many more will be ruined.
Still, while some impatient voices have called for some of those restrictions to be lifted, most individuals are going along with them. That is another common feature of wars — an entire society sometimes joins in supporting its government no matter how repressive its measures. Nazi Germany was the most extreme example, of course, but the populations of Serbia during the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s and Russia in recent years also slavishly accepted the aggressive actions of their leaders no matter how extreme they were. The peer pressure during wartime is just so powerful that very few people can stand up to it. It’s the rare citizen who speaks out against the received wisdom of the bellicose herd.
So too with the current war. There has been little challenge to an extraordinary interference by the government in its citizens’ lives: putting perhaps up to half of the population out of work without any right of appeal, and dubious compensation in the form of a handout check signed by President Trump in a brazen vote-buying ploy.
War is indeed stupid, and the warlike aspects of the campaign against the coronavirus are no exception. Since Mr. Trump declared war on his invisible enemy, it has only gotten worse, and we’ve become the country with the most cases. Yet Mr. Trump says “we’re going to win this war with this invisible enemy” when we still don’t even really know all the ways in which this enemy gets from one victim to another.
Reporting for this article was contributed by Jake Nordland in Brighton, England.
Rod Nordland is The Times’s bureau chief in Kabul, Afghanistan, an international correspondent at large, and has worked as a journalist in more than 150 countries during 40 years overseas.