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The Chaotic Response to Coronavirus Mirrors the Failures of 1914
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Government leaders everywhere are calling for their people to wage war against the coronavirus outbreak, recalling past victories in an effort to boost public morale. In Britain, politicians cite the Second World War as a suitable example of determined and successful resistance to a terrifying enemy.

Yet the faltering response of the British authorities to the Covid-19 pandemic so far is much closer to the failures of 1914 than anything that happened in 1940. The parallels are striking between the crisis today and the one that exploded on the world just over a hundred years ago. Then as now there was poor leadership – inadequately prepared and hampered by an initially mistaken strategy – sending frontline forces over the top to suffer massive losses. The difference is that then the casualties were in the British army and today they are in the NHS.

“Lions led by donkeys,” was the phrase used to condemn the waste of lives by incompetent First World War generals and their political masters. The same words could be used again today: once the shortages were of machine guns and artillery shells while now they are of ventilators, surgical masks and testing kits. The common feature is that in both cases the shortage will kill or disable a proportion of those who do not receive essential equipment.

The analogy could go on: the best trained troops of the British Expeditionary Force were all but wiped out in the first months of fighting and were replaced by enthusiastic but ill-trained volunteers. How will all those volunteering for service in Covid-19 hospitals fare when they begin to fill up?

Overdramatic? A pandemic is not the same as war? Governments around the world are already talking of potentially millions of dead unless the virus is brought under control. It is disrupting life and destroying economies on a scale not seen since 1945.

An excuse for the stumbling performance of most governments is that this crisis is unprecedented. Although China, Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore put their experience with the Sars epidemic to good use. Again the best comparison is with 1914 which was the first great international military conflict since the Napoleonic Wars a hundred years earlier. Come the Second World War people had plenty of grim experience of what such an earth-shaking conflict would be like.

But this does not quite explain why British political and scientific leadership has been visibly worse than almost all other developed countries. From the beginning, the authorities underestimated the gravity of the crisis: only five-and-a-half weeks ago, on 21 February, a meeting of government scientific advisers concluded that Covid-19 posed only a “moderate risk” to Britain. This was well after the epidemic had swept through China, where there were already 75,465 cases and 2,236 deaths, and was spreading to South Korea, Taiwan, Iran, Italy and France.

Scientific panjandrums who have since become television celebrities, such as the pandemic modeller Neil Ferguson, were at the meeting. But there appeared little objections raised to the conclusion directly afterwards. A quarter of a million people were allowed to attend the Cheltenham Festival on 10 to 13 March, only ten days before Boris Johnson said that everybody should stay at home and not gather in large numbers to avoid the spread of the deadly virus. These were miscalculations of First World War dimensions and are already exacting a heavy toll in human lives.

The government appears to think in slogans and not in joined up policies. “Get Brexit Done” has been replaced by “Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives”. There is an amateur air about all that is done: giant drive-through testing facilities were opened at Chessington World of Adventures and Ikea at Wembley, but nobody from the NHS was let in without a email giving them an appointment, something almost impossible to obtain.

A counterpart to the British tradition of amateurism is an exaggerated respect for supposed experts. In times of trouble, everybody looks for saviours with magical powers: a hundred years ago this was to be Kitchener and today we hope that the chief scientific officer, Sir Patrick Vallance, and the chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, both articulate confident professionals, know a feasible way out of the crisis.

Yet it was Whitty and Vallance who presided over the initial disastrous flirtation with “herd immunity” – let most people get the illness aside from the most vulnerable – that was only abandoned on 16 March. Since then ministers have tried to distance themselves from a strategy that is condemned by almost everybody, even President Trump, who, with shameless hypocrisy, has described it as “catastrophic”.

Critics unkindly point out that this political distancing will not work since Dr David Halpern, a senior Downing Street official, gave an interview five days before the government’s U-turn, confirming that official policy was to protect the most vulnerable so by the time they emerged from their cocooning, “herd immunity has been achieved in the rest of the population.”

The government is racking up an impressive record of poor judgement and inability to translate words into action. Why did it adopt a policy so different from the rest of Europe and Asia and contrary to that advised by the World Health Organisation (WHO). One explanation is probably that a Brexiteer cabinet, whose members had spent three years lauding the virtues of British separatism and exceptionalism, found nothing strange about going their own way. Another is that the British have always had difficulty in taking on board that they can learn anything from the experience of other nations and must wait until it happens to them.

There are other dangers on the horizon that might be averted if the experience of past world crises is taken into account. It is important not to overreact to chaos by putting some outside figure as head of medical procurement like Churchill’s appointment of his friend and ally Lord Beaverbrook, the owner of The Daily Express, as minister of aircraft production in 1940, in the mistaken belief that he would “energise” the aircraft industry.


But according to General Sir Alan Brooke, the supremely competent British chief of staff, he disrupted the carefully planned output of different types of aircraft. Brooke was particularly enraged when Beaverbrook used armour needed for tanks to make his own entirely useless armoured car, called the Beaverette, to be supplied to the Home Guard. His other stunt was to organise a campaign whereby kitchen utensils – along with ornamental railings – were collected as scrap that were supposed to be melted down to be turned into aircraft: “we will turn your pots and pans into Spitfires and Hurricanes, Blenheims and Wellingtons.” By most accounts, municipal dumps were full of useless and unused scrap by the end of the war.

The First World War exposed most governments in Europe and beyond as bunglers who could not cope with a real crisis. The pandemic is likely to provoke a similar political earthquake that governments, which carelessly use the rhetoric of war to their own advantage, will be lucky to survive.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: History • Tags: Britain, Coronavirus, World War II 
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  1. unit472 says:

    WW1 is a poor analogy. What has happened today was a combination of greed, stupidity and virtue signaling imperiling public health. Any informed person could see what was going on in Wuhan. Twitter was filled with video and accounts of the viral disaster because it was happening at such speed it caught the Chinese government by surprise and they weren’t able to immediately cover it up.

    There were also dire public warnings from epidemiologists of the danger this virus posed. So what did public officials do. Nothing, because to act might be interpreted as racist or cause a loss of revenue to local governments or major companies. Thus we had New York’s mayor and top public health office sanctioning a massive Chinese New Year parade on February 9th and the Mayor of New Orleans allowing the streets of that city to be filled with drunken revelers for Mardi Gras. Cruise ships were still setting off as late as March 9th more than a month after the Diamond Princess was quarantined in Yokohama.

    These mayors need to be impeached and held to account. The cruise ship executives and captains arrested and charged with murder.

    • Replies: @mark e tapley
    , @NPleeze
  2. Jsinton says:

    The current pandemic completely mirrors the Spanish flu epidemic. The WW I analogy is weak because your evidence is weak and we don’t know the outcome. Write about it after it’s over. My guess is by end of May everyone will wonder where it went to. Then you should tell us about erosion of liberty and government overreach.

    • Replies: @NPleeze
  3. Planned wars, planned pandemics. Politicians- puppets then, puppets now. What we are going through now is just one of the final steps towards global tyrannical government.

  4. @mark e tapley

    Did not get to finish comment. Rappaport will explain why Wuhan was used. Why it is not one disease-one cause. The BOGUS test gives false positives for ap. 200 diseases all labeled as covid 19 herding everyone into the same pen. He also explains the end game of the China model surveillance society with austerity and social monitoring and later energy quotas. Also ck. out Jeremy R. Hammond on the CDC Vaccine Fraud.

  5. @unit472

    You’re falling for the CDC propaganda that haas been ratcheted up since the frauds of H1N1-H5N1-SARS (Covid19 was originally SARS2) Swine flu-BirdFlu-Zika. Very few people die of the Flu. Over 99% of the victims autopsied in Italy had preexisting illnesses most more than one and avg. age of 79.5. The corrupt CDC with 50 Vaccine related patents and a revolving million dollar door into the Pharma racket jobs is diving the bus for the Elite Zionists on the way to Agenda 2030-21.

    • Replies: @James Forrestal
  6. I agree that WW1 is a very poor analogy for this article’s essential point that I assume is that there is nothing but stupidity and incompetence in government. When was the last time anyone in any country can say that their government did something proper and efficient that benefited the common people?

    The modern world has taken the inevitable progression towards the point where corruption, chicanery and hidden interests dominate all actions and events right down to the municipal level.

    Read history. It is the way we are. To try to break out of this system is to be smashed into dust. Look at a aerial photos of Berlin circa 1945.

    So now if we assume that the Coronovirus is a real event courtesy of Mother Nature we will see how our precious institutions, that can’t stop telemarketing scams from bothering their constituents without spending billions of dollars with countless countless studies, deals with an apolitical force of nature that has the energy and conviction of the Golden Horde.

    If the virus is defeated and/or contained, it is time look for the scam.


    • Agree: Kratoklastes
  7. The First World War exposed most governments in Europe and beyond as bunglers who could not cope with a real crisis.

    Bunglers? There was no crisis. They were sociopaths who killed millions!

    • Replies: @TomSchmidt
  8. This was well after the epidemic had swept through China, where there were already 75,465 cases and 2,236 deaths….

    Compared to an ordinary flu season in a country the size of China, these numbers are trivial, so the initial reaction can be excused. Even compared to the roughly 1,400 to 1,600 people who died weekly in the UK due to respiratory diseases during 2019, the current stats are distressing, but still not the stuff of a society killer. The media has overblown this, and the red-faced politicians took the bait. The only similarity to WW1 is that calm heads could have avoided it altogether if they hadn’t taken the bait.

    • Replies: @Marshal Marlow
  9. At some point, no doubt we will be able to judge world government handling of CV19 on a scale of better & worse.
    Having said that, what did people actually think might happen with a “Boris-led” government, even in “normal” circumstances ? It is genuinely hard to think of a man, regardless of even ideology LESS qualified to be a PM that “Boris”. A notorious & congenital liar, snob, philanderer, & lazy bastard, Boris is the zenith, the epitome of post modern, neoliberal vacuous democracy.
    In the circumstances, I have both sympathy & contempt for the UK that it could vote in such an utter scoundrel.

    • Agree: Wielgus
    • Disagree: YetAnotherAnon
    • Replies: @Wielgus
    , @YetAnotherAnon
  10. Not to sure about his comments about Beaverbrook disrupting “carefully planned output of different types of aircraft”

    There was a desperate need for fighter aircraft (Spitfires,Hurricanes) in 1940 so Beaverbrook tore up these plans, to produce a wide range of aircraft, to churn out fighters.

    To quote the historian A J P Taylor in his biography of Beaverbrook.

    “His aim was to produce more aircraft at once, and he did not mind the accusation that he was sacrificing the future for the sake of the present. The present was all that mattered to him, and unless that was secured there would be no future to sacrifice”

    Taylor was a friend of Beaverbrook but I think there is a certain amount of wisdom in the above.

  11. Hossein says:

    A truly nonsensical article. Pat keeps concentrating on the UK while absolving Trump regime ,his beloved kind of regime, of any miscalculations or wrong doings that has caused so many unnecessary deaths.
    It is not the NHS and it’s inability that has caused the spike in number of afflicted and deaths in the UK. Rather it is the huge spending cuts for programs such as NHS ,by the dumb Tories, that has accelerated the pandemic in the UK. The orange retard in 10 Downing street is responsible for that.
    The NHS is the pride of the British people and unlike the for profit heal thcare mafia that Pat is so proud of, has been a blessing for the over all health of British people.
    Instead of ranting and barking about the NHS ,Pat should pay a bit of attention to all those dumb red necks who make a huge bulk of his party and who still believe that this deadly pandemic is a hoax and that their White Jesus with his blonde hair will take care of it.

    • Replies: @suicidal_canadian
  12. @Hossein

    Why did we teach jihadis to speak English? I can’t even enjoy a current affairs blog without the being subjected to the rantings and ravings of a bearded allahu-akubar type.

  13. I guess Herd Immunity was a worse idea than Contract Tracing. Still a better idea than Lockdown Forever and killing society in order to save it.

  14. @Carlton Meyer

    No, they killed only one: Western Civilization.

  15. “Government leaders everywhere are calling for their people to wage war against the coronavirus outbreak, recalling past victories in an effort to boost public morale. ”

    In war, fathers bury their sons. In peacetime, sons bury their fathers.

    Which of those two does this crisis resemble?

  16. NPleeze says:

    it was happening at such speed it caught the Chinese government by surprise and they weren’t able to immediately cover it up.

    Another typically idiotic comment from the yellow-bellied boot-lickers. China kept the WHO (and thereby the entire planet) informed of what was happening from day 1. Check the WHO website. Already when there were only a dozen cases WHO was informed on Dec. 31, the first death they were informed a few days later, and were kept informed throughout. In fact WHO lauded the Chinese for their openness and cooperation.

    There were also dire public warnings from epidemiologists of the danger this virus posed

    Yeah, the hysterical rantings by paid-for-in-full “scientists” who are playing along with this hysteria designed to solidify governmental control over the boot-lickers, like you, and anyone else you can drag down to your pathetic level.

  17. NPleeze says:

    You can’t get published in the MSM unless you scream “The Sky is Falling” 100 times in countless idiotic ways.

  18. @The Alarmist

    I agree. The virus’ symptoms are essentially identical to flu until shortness of breath begins, at which point we’re 10-days down the track. Plus, mostly older people were showing shortness of breath – and guess what, shortness of breath isn’t uncommon in old people! Especially old peasants who have smoked 50 a day since they were 15 years old.

    Given those clues, there aren’t many family doctors who would jump to the conclusion that old Mr Mao is suffering from a brand new virus rather than just pneumonia brought on from a combination of flu, a hard peasant life, smoking and old age.

    The most amazing thing is that China’s epidemiological surveillance system actually put a few clues together and went out looking for a brand new virus.

  19. The fight against the corona pandemic is compared to a world war. But mankind was already facing global conflict before this outbreak. The disease distracts us from this reality, becomes politicized and used to identify scapegoats and demonize opponents – adding to chaos. Our nature, as history demonstrates, is far more dangerous than any pathogen.

  20. Wielgus says:

    His opponent, Corbyn, was systematically denigrated as a terror-supporting anti-Semite and his own party’s MPs routinely knifed him in the back. So that left Johnson. A disgusting process to observe, of course.

  21. Give me liberty or give me death .

    Nathan Hale

    I would rather die from a natural virus, than the worst virus in history: THE POLITICAL VIRUS,
    This virus destroys your free will, it scares humans of life itself,
    It takes most of the human production without producing anything itself,
    It lies, cheats, and steals without any regard for decency and justice,
    It’s hunger for more and more power cannot be satisfied until it chokes its host to actual death or servitude.
    It makes its own laws to protect itself, both legally and financially’
    It finds the humans with the least resistance, and converts them to join his viral club.
    Political parties mean nothing, the virus enjoys and uses them to split the public into ridiculous camps discussing ridiculous subjects.
    This virus is embedded in our educational system, where any dissent against “virus approved” opinions are terminated.
    The virus controls through fear for the masses, and exorbitant pensions, and salaries, for the carriers.

    And finally, this virus is attacking and trying to destroy the greatest declaration in the history of humanity, against it.
    In case you haven’t figured out, it’s the undivided “Declaration of Independence”, and the “Constitution of the United States”.

    Wake up Americans, don’t let this scam fool you. Our forefathers warned us:

    “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

    Benjamin Franklin

    Norb Svanascini

  22. “once the shortages were of machine guns and artillery shells while now they are of ventilators, surgical masks and testing kits”

    In WWI the UK made plenty of machine guns and artillery shells – just not enough for the static warfare which developed, and which was itself a product of the machine gun.

    At the beginning of this outbreak the UK had 5,000 ventilators and AFAIK zero domestic production of masks, gloves or protective gowns/hazmat suits. All made elsewhere, mostly in China.

    And when it comes to testing, we don’t AFAIK make the necessary PCR machines. Germany, US, China again.

    Our generic pharmaceuticals are made in India from Chinese precursor chemicals.

    We had one company (the privatised former Government Chemist – LGC Biosearch Technologies) theoretically capable of mounting a quick response and producing large numbers of tests. But it’s owned by US private equity (KKR) and is only now producing tests to the (US) CDC standard.

    By contrast, the German company TIB Molbiol, owned by the scientist who founded it, produced its first test on January 10, and has produced 4 million tests since. Which is why Germany has done so much testing.

    As far as I know, neither Mr Cockburn nor the Indie have ever campaigned against the offshoring of UK industrial production, for which we (including Boris) now pay the price.

    The ‘chaotic response’ is at least 50% down to the fact that we haven’t got the kit, and we’re waiting like cargo cultists for the Great White Bird From The East to land and bring it to us.

  23. @animalogic

    “A notorious & congenital liar, snob, philanderer, & lazy bastard”

    He may be all these things, but politics is a negative beauty contest, he was still the best candidate.

    Trump’s and Boris’s election victories are a condemnation of the competing politicians, not of them.

  24. @YetAnotherAnon

    In the case of Mr. Corbyn you are adding insult to injury.
    As in the case of Mr. Sanders.

    • Replies: @YetAnotherAnon
  25. @mark e tapley

    The “Just the flu!” tards never give up — just keep on doubling down.

    Pretty comical.

  26. @but an humble craftsman

    Corbyn’s manifesto wanted a rerun of Brexit. Bernie Sanders didn’t win the Democratic nomination in 2016.

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