John Fong looks at the parallels between the build-up to the last great war and the current pandemic.
In 1937, just before World War Two broke out in 1939, then-US President Franklin D Roosevelt delivered his ‘Quarantine Speech’:
It is true that the moral consciousness of the world must recognize the importance of removing injustices and well-founded grievances; but at the same time it must be aroused to the cardinal necessity of honouring sanctity of treaties, of respecting the rights and liberties of others and of putting an end to acts of international aggression.
It seems to be unfortunately true that the epidemic of world lawlessness is spreading.
When an epidemic of physical disease starts to spread, the community approves and joins in a quarantine of the patients in order to protect the health of the community against the spread of the disease.
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War is a contagion, whether it be declared or undeclared. It can engulf states and peoples remote from the original scene of hostilities.
If the title of Roosevelt’s speech above truly lives up to its analogy and we apply the Quarantine Speech to the present-day context, then we would probably be living at the time when Nazi Germany had annexed chunks of Europe and the Imperial Japanese Army had invaded China.
As humanity approached World War Two, the once great British empire took a long time to acknowledge the imminent threat posed by Nazi expansion in Europe. Britain was not ready and could not afford another global war.
That is like our current predicament: we were far from ready for a coronavirus pandemic, and it took a long time to even acknowledge it as one. By the time we could impose lockdowns and implement a proper response plan, the coronavirus had already infected millions globally.
Today’s equivalent of the Axis powers are not countries that we can list down. Rather, it is our own immorality, greed and lack of ethical conduct that has proved our undoing. To say that the coronavirus is the only common enemy threatening the world is just fooling ourselves and providing false comfort.
In reality, the coronavirus has exposed our hypocrisy and the worst of humanity. Now, we are at ‘war’ – not just against the coronavirus but also against our ‘second self’ – our alter ego of destructive and malicious behaviour.
Instead of fascism and the concept of a master race to achieve global dominance in World War Two, the ideas have now devolved to a subtler form, making the ‘virus’ highly contagious and penetrable in every corner of society. These devolved ideas include sophisticated authoritarianism, systemic or institutionalised racism, extreme nationalism, populism, corruption, greed, and unprincipled conduct.
These are present and accepted by many in our own society and in many other nations across the world. The battles have raged amid the pandemic through global movements and protests between our own internal moral compass, on the one hand, and the ignorant values of our ‘second self’, on the other. This great battles involve a lot of emotional labour and emotional intelligence.
And so, the world begins to ‘reopen’, indirectly expanding the battlefield, as governments prioritise their ‘precious’ economies regardless of the infection rates among the public. Let’s hope that we will have enough time to stop this contagion so it never reaches the stage where we become desensitised to the mounting death toll or as the murderous dictator Joseph Stalin reportedly put it in 1947: “‘If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.”
John Fong, an Aliran member, is a masters student in social science in a local public university