A sense of exceptionalism served Britain well in world wars, but COVID-19 has exposed the dangers of going it alone.
Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II and quotes from her COVID-19 speech pictured in an empty Piccadilly Circus in London, 9 April 2020. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
I spent two weeks of the virus lockdown self-isolating in Crystal Palace, perched on a hill on the southern fringes of London, with one of the best views of the capital.
The spectacular vista, dominated by the 300-metre spire of the Shard building, encouraged much contemplation of London’s past as COVID-19 has Britain facing its biggest crisis in 75 years.
Crystal Palace became fashionable in the mid-19th century when wealthy Victorians moved up the hill to escape the fetid vapours of industrial London and its slums. There is no evidence that the cleaner air provides any protection from COVID-19 — in Britain or elsewhere — but it still feels fresher up there.
The area got its name from the huge glass pavilion that was built for the first world fair in 1851 and later moved from Hyde Park to Sydenham Hill. Those Victorians had a can-do attitude that might be beneficial now, as the British government blusters and blunders through the virus emergency.
The palace burned down in 1936 in a spectacle that could be seen for miles. The inferno was watched by 100,000 people, including Winston Churchill and my parents, whose homes were nearby.
London bears many scars from the past.
The current crisis has been compared to the Spanish flu after World War One, but the way we regard our fellow humans as potential infectors and jump out of their way on our daily permitted walks reminds me more of the plague. Indeed, there are plague pits all over London, where bodies were piled after the pestilence of 1665.
I could dwell on plagues, flu epidemics or a deadly smog in the 1950s that made my parents submit me to the embarrassment of wearing a mask to school. But instead, my mind returns to the bombing of London and other major cities in World War Two.
The impact of COVID-19 in Britain is horrible, but it does not approach the terrors of the 1940-41 Blitz or the later attacks by German V-1 and V-2 rockets in 1944-45. The bombing killed around 30,000 Londoners and flattened great swathes of the historic city. A million houses were destroyed or damaged.
Even 75 years after the end of the war, there are plenty of reminders of the bombing, which obliterated my grandparents’ house — fortunately when they were not there — and blew the windows out of my parents’ first home. Many central areas were rebuilt, but even in the suburbs, newer flats and houses can be seen inserted incongruously into gaps caused by bombing in rows of pre-war housing.
Half my primary school was in newer bricks than the rest because a lone German raider bombed it in 1943, killing 38 children and six adults.
A plaque at the end of the street where I live recalls two families killed by bombs or rockets, among the 500 to fall on our London suburb.
Defiance and determination defined Londoners.
What is remarkable about those events is the stoicism and defiance of Londoners who found neighbours dead and houses destroyed when they emerged each morning during 57 nights of bombing.
The great American broadcaster Edward Murrow, who reported on the Blitz, was famous for his sign-off “Good night and good luck,” adopted from Londoners who exchanged the greeting before nights they were unsure of surviving.
Although my parents and aunts and uncles occasionally told us of their experiences, they never dwelt on the horrors. The British were a lot more reserved back then, and many did not want to relive the trauma.
Unlike today, there was no social media to exchange advice, emotions and experiences, only shared radios that broadcast Winston Churchill’s defiant speeches and boosted their determination.
Many nights were spent clustered together in damp garden shelters or underground railway stations. My older sister was born in 1940 and never had a proper bath in the first few months of her life. She was put to bed in a drawer so my mother could rush her into the shelter at the first wails from air raid sirens.
Soon the bombing became so dangerous that my mother was evacuated to various parts of the country, a young, sheltered woman who grew up fast to deal with sometimes unsympathetic families reluctantly taking in a mother with baby.
Not long before she died last year at the ripe age of 101, my mother told me of how she grabbed my sister and ran terrified into the street from one place where she was evacuated because a faulty water geyser made a sound like a falling bomb.
Populists are exploiting a false sense of exceptionalism.
Memories of the war were revived last week in celebrations of the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe day. Frightened people have looked to the dwindling number of survivors of the war for an example of the fortitude needed to resist a horrifying crisis.
Sadly, the genuine memories are slipping away or have been exploited for political reasons, including by populists during the divisive Brexit debate.
War images have been repeatedly used, especially by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his cabinet, in describing the fight against COVID-19. Some consider the rhetoric inappropriate in the battle against an unseen virus in which the heroes are doctors and nurses, not soldiers, and death is random, not for lack of strength in combat.
The war generation deserve the praise that has been heaped on them, but many, including no doubt my mother, would say the present crisis is different.
Still, accounts of plucky Britain standing alone during the war or miraculously surviving the disaster of Dunkirk are at the core of a sense of exceptionalism that not only stoked Brexit opinion but also led to some of the disastrous elements of Britain’s response to COVID-19, which have left the country with what appears to be the second highest death toll in the world.
Britain should have learned from others about COVID-19.
Early on, the government and its senior medical advisers decided they knew better than countries like South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, which built on experience gained during the outbreak of another coronavirus, SARS, at the beginning of this century and mobilised to suppress the spread of COVID-19.
The government lost time by dabbling with a belief that exposing the population to the virus would build enough “herd immunity” to stop the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in Britain.
Britain seems to have largely ignored warnings from Italy, which was hit badly by the disease weeks before the UK. So, the UK locked down late, is still behind on testing and tracing and is only slowly recommending masks in crowded settings or the quarantine of passengers coming from abroad.
There has been a deadly outbreak in care homes, while distribution of protective equipment to health workers has been dogged by planning failures and inadequate stocks.
Yet government action seemed at first driven by a belief in British superiority in epidemiology and the revered National Health Service — much weakened by years of budget cuts — over other nations that have done better in combating the virus. As the death toll passed Italy’s, Johnson emerged from his own close shave with the illness to describe the government’s actions as an “apparent success.”
Perhaps the inevitable inquest on what went wrong will at last bury outdated notions, stoked by populists and nostalgic traditionalists, that Britain is always best and has little to learn from other nations.
Barry Moody worked on every continent as one of Reuters most experienced foreign correspondents and editors. He was Africa Editor for 10 years and Middle East editor for seven, during which time he led coverage of the 2003 Iraq war. His postings included Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa, Italy, Asia, Australasia and the United States. He ran editorial operations in Italy, Spain, Greece and Portugal at the height of the EU debt crisis.