The exhortation to channel our ‘Blitz Spirit’ during the outbreak of Covid-19 falls short of contemporary needs. It is right to criticise this myth each and every time it is invoked, not least in a pandemic. Contemporary reaction to the establishment’s tenor of plucky stoicism indicates that society is jaded by the predictability of ‘Blitz Spirit’. There is a twenty-first century reluctance to buy into politicians’ co-opted fantasies and victories. Nevertheless, as Political historian Steven Fielding writes, ‘All myths contain an element of truth or they cannot be sustained’: myths have form, function and purpose. Herein lies an opportunity to complicate easy, lazy wartime analogies and encourage unity between those enduring a twenty-first century pandemic rather than those re-living a cliché.
I started thinking about this at work over a week ago as I watched a senior executive sail cheerily into our office clutching a fluorescent yellow bottle of bleach and a pair of rubber gloves. No doubt, this man could not locate a jiffy cloth in a line-up of fabrics. Here was the sight of an operations chief preparing to launch his Covid-19 response. An obsession with the entrance door handle ensued, which, he wrote on a personally worded advisory, posed ‘the greatest threat to the office in terms of the danger introducing the Coronavirus’. We were reminded to use kitchen towel not tea towels to dry our hands after heeding the revolutionary guidance to wash them. Tea towels being ‘in any event meant for glasses and crockery’. Of course, there were other dangers to the health of the office. A lack of guidance on Statutory Sick Pay, for example, which led me to continue going to work despite having a bad cold; the fact that we were all travelling to work on London Transport; the fact that it was too soon to tell what ‘the greatest threat’ really was in spreading the disease.
A few days later, the same satisfied executive passed by cuddling a multi-pack of Imperial Leather. His war effort was progressing efficiently. Despite most of us being able to work from home if directed, it was announced that the office was staying open. Just last week, many British people were exercising more than a hint of our favourite Second World War anachronism, ‘keep calm and carry on’. Contrasting starkly with images of the real national front liners – nurses, doctors, social workers, public health advisors – this ‘business as usual’ attitude smacked of failure and tragedy. The paternalistic reminder to wash our hands was correct, of course, but reflected a deep naivety about the depth of the crisis and its impact on people much worse off than ourselves. It was disrespectful to those in occupations where this ‘war’ was real, such as the Lewisham cleaning staff who walked out over pay and conditions, despite being the people most critical in keeping-up Covid-19 prevention efforts.
Anyhow, ‘keep calm and carry on’ was patently ineffective, so we moved onto another old favourite, ‘doing our bit’. This myth is a useful one; it is no fiction. We can all dramatically slow the spread of contagion by following simple public health advice. There is truth in this. And, in a highly individualised era, this effort is accessible and very ‘now’; some may even be excited by newfound opportunities to bake homemade bread, grow herbs and learn to crochet – nothing wrong with that. But, the true parallel between Covid-19 and the Second World War is not necessarily in the sacrifices made by individuals, it is in the unprecedented mobilisation of employment sectors we have either been under-appreciating or have never even recognised .
This more useful Second World War tale illustrates how government can re-frame skills and specialisms, reorder the social and economic status of labour and completely reconfigure workforce expectations of employers and workplace legislation. While wartime dictats did not destroy the class system or eradicate pay inequalities, from 1940 onward, by orchestrating a mammoth policy shift on holidays, working hours, occupational health, nutrition, access to medical care, etc., Ernest Bevin, Minister for Labour, challenged government, the private sector and ordinary people to reconsider the value of various occupations. Now, those of us without the expertise to stop the spread of Covid-19 or support communities to overcome its effects should be re-evaluating which social groups we view with esteem and respect. Indeed, as the Lancet editorial recently stated, “It is vital that governments see workers not simply as pawns to be deployed, but as human individuals. In the global response, the safety of health-care workers must be ensured.” I would extend this wish to the cleaners, delivery drivers, catering staff, pharmacists, shelf-stackers, nursery workers, teachers, who are maintaining the human dignity of our health and social services.
‘Blitz Spirit’ is not an entirely fabricated story, individuals made local decisions to support and protect their communities in ways that complemented and reflected the culture of the time. From religiously cleaning a door handle to making cups of tea for off duty air wardens, ‘Blitz Spirit’ describes common sense courage and kindness, the likes of which most of us would expect in an emergency. It is not necessarily a change in behaviour; it is an elevation of existing behavioural standards. But, individual behaviour alone did not win the war, nor would it ‘win’ against coronavirus. The adage that we all must ‘do our bit’ is as true as it is misleading. Of course, the unity and collective endeavour it takes to distance, isolate, change food choices, alter hygiene practices and concede to the curtailment of freedoms is an inspiring national venture against pandemic. Yet such ‘spirit’, so to speak, would be nothing if it were not also an opportunity for permanent structural change and reconfigured employment policies fit for a dignified and equalised society.