War in the time of coronavirus
On Monday, French president Emmanuel Macron addressed his country, repeatedly asserting that France is “at war” with “an invisible and elusive enemy”— a war that necessitates severe restrictions, the introduction of widespread emergency measures and the cooperation of French citizens in mobilizing collectively against a coronavirus that continues to take thousands of lives across the globe.
To this end, he declared, French citizens must make weighty personal sacrifices in order to fulfill their civic responsibilities — the most significant of which calls on French citizens to abide by a nationwide lockdown order to stay at home for the next 15 days. At the same time, the French government will deploy its full resources, mobilizing the military if necessary, and taking special actions to protect the most vulnerable segments of the population.
Meanwhile, the United States has failed to adopt necessary measures that have, in other countries, stemmed the tide of an epidemic that threatens to kill over one million Americans. Such severe measures, like the nationwide lockdown imposed in France, are unpalatable in a fiercely individualistic country in which, as Tocqueville observed nearly two centuries ago, commerce is king.
Yet America’s history also demonstrates that, in times of war, we can rise above our ardent individualism and suspicion of the government and come together to defend the public good. So if we can, as Macron has suggested, come to perceive today’s crisis as a war, we will rise to the occasion as we have done in the past.
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, a spirit of shared sacrifice was everywhere visible: in the thousands of men and women who volunteered for duty, in the public’s acceptance of rationing, in labor’s no-strike pledge, in the purchase of war bonds by Americans of every economic level, and in the eighteen million “victory gardens” which produced one-third of the nation’s vegetables. During World War II, business converted to wartime production with astonishing speed, producing 300,000 military planes, 86,000 tanks, and 71,000 ships. Government sponsored research generated numerous inventions critical to winning the war, including radar, early computers, and — most fatefully — the atomic bomb.
Both ordinary citizens and the wealthy accepted a much heavier tax burden during World War II, with the number of federal taxpayers increasing from 3.9 million in 1936 to 42.6 million in 1945, while marginal tax rates on the wealthy rose beyond ninety percent, the highest in American history. Overall, US military spending rocketed from 2 percent of the GDP in 1939 to nearly 40 percent in 1945.
This historical solidarity stands in stark contrast with today’s perilously inadequate response to a bona fide national emergency. Ardent individualism and deep-seated reluctance to disrupt commerce combined with a weak social safety net, a deeply flawed healthcare system and a president with a visceral distrust of experts has made the United States fertile ground for a public health catastrophe.
Yet, like World War II, the current situation demands personal sacrifice and social solidarity. Americans will need to accept temporary restrictions on their cherished personal freedom, major disruptions of commerce and generous funding of public services: free medical care for those with the virus who lack insurance; paid leave so that workers can shelter at home; generous funding for the National Centers for Disease Control and related federal agencies. A nation-wide lockdown — the closing of schools, restaurants, stores, workplaces and the banning of public gatherings — will be critical. We will need, in short, a response like that of the nation during World War II — a willingness to set personal interests aside and to accept the costly increase in state capacity needed to meet the challenge when hundreds of thousands of lives are at stake.
Our own history offers a cautionary tale about the consequences of failure. In 1918-1919, the “Spanish” Flu — one of the worst pandemics in human history — infected nearly a third of the world’s population, killing an estimated thirty to fifty million people. Originating in January 1918, in the midst of World War I, it took a backseat to the war; in the United States, President Woodrow Wilson, preoccupied with defeating the Germans, ignored repeated warnings from his personal physician as well as the chiefs of the Army and Navy. In the end, the epidemic took 675,000 lives — more than ten times the total number of combat deaths in World War I.
But even in the absence of presidential leadership, some local officials took decisive actions that saved thousands of lives. In St. Louis, the city’s dedicated health commissioner ignored protests of local businessmen and closed down movie theaters, bars, sporting events and city schools; in Philadelphia, where city officials failed to take appropriate action, the death rate was doubled that of St. Louis.
It is too late in the United States to contain the current epidemic, but it is still possible to slow its spread. Doing so will require drastic and costly actions that will cause short term economic harm. But the cost of failing to act in both lives and treasure will be far greater.
On March 13, President Trump finally declared a national emergency. What is needed now, not just from the White House, but from leaders in all walks of American life, is a forthright recognition that the nation is at war with a deadly and stealthy foe. But unlike in World War II, we cannot wait years to win the war; this is a war that must be won in weeks, or at most, months. Every day of delay has the potential to cost thousands of lives. And if we do not act with decisiveness now, the toll may go well beyond the 405,399 Americans who died in World War II.
Jerome Karabel is a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley.