Past crises brought change. What will this pandemic bring?

Why We Wrote This

The coronavirus pandemic is just the latest in a long line of global crises. And as those earlier events have shown, there is hope for a better world tomorrow – and it starts with each individual.

Steve Apps/Courtesy of Jerold W. Apps
Jerry Apps was one of the tens of thousands of Americans who contracted polio in the 1950s. But while the disease hampered his use of his legs, it ended up leading him to his career as a historian and author.

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Crises have been the catalyst for major shifts, personal and structural. Public health systems were established after the 1918 flu pandemic. Widespread social welfare policies were created after World War II. Now that many are undergoing the biggest crisis of their lifetimes – a pandemic with unknown health and economic consequences – they are finding their limits tested.

Heads of state like French President Emmanuel Macron have likened the current situation to previous war eras. Those who lived through the uncertainty of World War II feel it intimately.

Odile Diconne was a child in the occupied zone of France during the war. She says that the era was one of constant scarcity. “We had ration stamps to buy food, but it was very limited.”

Like many of those who have lived through wars, depressions, or other public health threats, the crises shaped values systems that they rely on during this pandemic, says Raymond Charlès, who also lived through World War II as a child. He says he believes the forced shutdowns could help today’s generation learn to live with less.

“During the war, before buying something we’d ask ourselves, ‘Do I really need this?’ I think this will be a good experience for this generation.”

Jerry Apps was pulling his sled home from his one-room country school in rural Wisconsin on a January afternoon in 1947 when he started to feel ill. Within days his family knew it was polio, the worst public health threat in American communities of the postwar era.

While his father helped him largely regain use of his legs, there was no more basketball, baseball, track, or helping his folks on the farm.

He grappled with worthlessness throughout his childhood, he says. But at the urging of a teacher, he joined a typewriting class. He was the only boy and says he excelled because his fingers were strong from milking cows. Another teacher, recognizing his suffering on the sidelines of the sports he loved, urged him to broadcast the games instead. He believes without polio he wouldn’t have gotten to college – or had a career as a historian and author.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

Crises have been the catalyst for major shifts, personal and structural. Public health systems were established after the 1918 flu pandemic. Widespread social welfare policies were created after World War II. Now that many in the world are undergoing the biggest crisis of their lifetimes – a pandemic with unknown health and economic consequences – their limits are being tested like Mr. Apps’s once were.

“For a lot of people it’s a very tough stretch right now, and they need to find a little optimism,” Mr. Apps says. “When I had polio, I was the most miserable, ornery, unhappy-feeling kid you could ever imagine. And my dad, he never said, ‘Get over it.’ He just said, ‘Tomorrow’s going to be a better day. Next year is going to be a better year. Let’s get on with it.’”

“I’ve had my bad days, but boy, I’ve had a wonderfully good life, my goodness.”

Ideas of national sacrifice

The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare some of society’s urgent weaknesses, from inequality to lax health and labor protections to environmental degradation, and many are hoping it forces change around the world when it’s done.

It’s far too soon to know how deep or lasting any shifts will be. Historians say transformations are often oversimplified and romanticized in collective memory. But many individuals are recalibrating goals, values, and their own understanding of freedom.

That has been shepherded by heads of state, who have likened the current situation to previous war eras. Politicians around the globe have asked their citizens to shelter at home, with a loss of freedom over movement and labor – something unthinkable just two months ago. And in doing so, they have invoked ideas of national sacrifice.

French President Emmanuel Macron told the country that it was “at war” with the coronavirus ahead of France’s first lockdown period on March 17. And in an April 13 address, he said that even though it was difficult to stay confined and deal with shortages while being on the “front lines” of the virus, the country had “mobilized” and a “production schedule, just like in times of war, [had] been put in place.”

Queen Elizabeth, in an address to the British people in April, invoked the spirit of World War II when she told the nation, “We will meet again,” a reference to a British song from the war. “Better days will return.”

Olivier Wieviorka, a French historian who specializes in the study of World War II, says there are parallels between then and now, in shortages, restrictions, and sacrifice. And those who lived through the uncertainty of the era feel it intimately.

Odile Diconne was a child in Remigny in the Burgundy region in the occupied zone of France during World War II. She says that, with her father locked up as a prisoner of war, the era was one of constant scarcity. “We had ration stamps to buy food, but it was very limited. We would try to grow what was lacking in our garden, but it was a difficult period.”

Damian Dovarganes/AP
Cartons of eggs are for sale at a Trader Joe's grocery store in Los Angeles on May 14, 2020. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, egg demand has increased. A sign reads: "A great way to show kindness to our neighbors is to limit yourself to 2 units of any item. We are all in this together."

Total darkness obscured the streets of her neighborhood every evening, as families shuttered themselves inside for the German army-imposed curfew. Ms. Diconne and her family would black out their windows with paper and escape to the basement as shelling pounded down nearby. And yet, in some ways she finds today’s lockdowns more psychologically challenging.

“It’s harder now to not be able to go out, speak to the neighbors,” says Ms. Diconne. “During the war, schools and churches remained open. We were relatively free.”

Like many of those who have lived through wars, depressions, or other public health threats, the crises shaped values systems that they rely on during this pandemic, says Raymond Charlès, who was born in 1933 in Brittany, France, and also lived through World War II as a child. He says he believes the forced shutdowns could help today’s generation learn to live with less.

“During the war, before buying something we’d ask ourselves, ‘Do I really need this?’ I think this will be a good experience for this generation, who always have everything they want right away.”

“Things are going to change,” says Mr. Wieviorka, the historian, “but it won’t be a big bang or a major change from one day to the next.”

What comes out of this?

The current lockdown has created a sense of solidarity among communities that is reminiscent of wartime when neighbors would help tend each other’s farms or share food, says Richard Berrong, who has produced three documentaries on World War II and is a French professor at Kent State University in Ohio. “Solidarity was a really important element of the occupation,” he says.

Within the first month of lockdown in the United Kingdom, more than 750,000 volunteers had signed up to community groups to take care of Britain’s more vulnerable people. In Canada, a group of “caremongers” has sprung out to help those in need.

But there are limits to the parallels, argues Mark Humphries, a historian at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario who wrote “The Last Plague: Spanish Influenza and the Politics of Public Health in Canada.”

“It’s very easy for politicians to say, ‘We’re in a war, this is about national sacrifice,’ and then use that to try and allude to previous conflicts and make the argument that we need to do what people did in the past. ... But these things get very muddy and murky very quickly.” In Canada, for example, in both world wars, conscription became a divisive issue that roiled the nation.

He says that during World War I there was a longing for the war to be “a cleansing fire which would burn away all the old problems.” That idealism faded quickly as political divisions resurfaced. He says that a lot of the goodwill today around sacrifice could erode as people weigh the financial and social costs of shutdowns.

“I think that we have to be very careful in assuming that what comes out of this is a unifying thing,” he says.

Yet Mr. Apps says that the individual growth that comes at any period of change should be used to refocus thinking on those things in society that need to change, like a lack of safety nets for many workers.

“I firmly believe that this is that rare opportunity once again to think carefully about where we want to be and not spend all of our time thinking about how we can be exactly like we were,” he says. “That’s not the right question. This is our opportunity to be something better than we were.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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