Seventy-five years ago Western Allied forces formally accepted the surrender of Nazi High Command leaders in Germany, ending World War II in Europe. The Wehrmacht fought the Soviet Red Army another day, surrendering on the 9th of May. Victory in Europe (VE) Day is celebrated on May 8th in the West, the following day in the East. It is unclear if it is celebrated at all in Germany.
While the world is still deeply engaged in containing and vanquishing the SARS-Cov-2 virus which causes COVID-19, the menace that emanated from Wuhan, in Hubei province, China, there are some lessons learned from the horror of World War II that have some application to the current crisis, and may also inform how nations prepare for other global and strategic challenges.
The first lesson is to take notice of what may appear to be minor events and to realize that they may portend serious threats in the future. Just as the taking of power by Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist German Workers Party in January 1933 may not, in itself indicate that a global catastrophe was in the offing in a few short years, neither did the obscure announcement of a new sort of pneumonia in hospitals in Wuhan, in December 2019. This news did, however, get the attention of public health officials and research scientists, as did follow-on stories about how a new coronavirus, similar to SARS, caused a similar pandemic in 2002-03.
Another lesson is to remember other episodes of calamity in the past, to see if they are relevant to the current situation. Prior to World War II breaking out, World War I occurred. There were also smaller armed conflicts in Europe, including the devastating Spanish Civil War (which involved both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union), Ethiopia (which was caused by Hitler’s ally, Italy, ruled by Benito Mussolini), and larger ones in East Asia (the invasion of China in July 1937, the real start of the war, by another German ally, Imperial Japan).
Western nations did not learn anything about preparedness against potential aggression by fanatical, homicidal assailants, but tried to deny anything could or would happen. Winston Churchill warned about the danger in vain.
Similarly, before COVID-19, not only was there the SARS pandemic, there were H1N1, and H15N, Zika, West Nile virus, Zika virus, and Ebola virus outbreaks, not just in tropical ‘hot zones’, but right here in North America. As a result, public health officials studied these events, and published reports recommending certain preparatory steps, including stockpiling personal protection equipment (PPE), for frontline medical workers; and ventilators and other essential equipment.
Even during the current crisis, there were early signs that it was building into a serious calamity. First there were reports of an outbreak in Wuhan, and that it was expanding rapidly. Then, that the city was in lockdown, which was unprecedented. There were some early reports that there was human-to-human transmission, which was denied by the Communist leadership of China. Another lesson from the past is not to believe the leaders of authoritarian regimes, let alone totalitarian ones such as Nazi Germany’s, which denied any incursions or designs on neighbouring countries, or maltreatment of its own minorities (both of which Communist China has also done).
Related to this is the cost or budgetary factor. Bolstering military forces for a foe which may not become a material threat to one’s own country costs a lot of money. However, catching up when the enemy is upon us is even more expensive, as Western nations, along with the Republic of China and the Soviet Union, found out in wartime.
Spending money on more medical capacity and resiliency would have been costly to us prior to the current virus attack, but the amount of money involved back then would be considered a laughable pittance to us now, when the figures bandied about are many thousands of lost lives and hundreds of billions of dollars, not to mention the millions of people made unemployed by quarantine measures, in Canada and abroad, and the trillions of dollars of lost income and wealth.
Another lesson is that a major, continuing crisis, such as the Great Depression, should not distract, or detract, from paying attention to potential threats, wherever they are, and taking them seriously. That was part of the problem in the 1930s: electorates, and the politicians they elected, were entirely absorbed with survival and revival of their national and regional economies; global issues were an esoteric luxury.
The final lesson is that the reigning leaders of Western nations in both the 1930s and those of today did a bad job of preparing for tangible, demonstrably real, potential threats, levelling with their populations as to what those threats might be, the costs involved in facing up to them, and persuading them to take the appropriate course of action, and implementing the plans to make it happen.
In World War II, the cost of this aversion to reality was about one hundred million people killed, trillions of dollars of destruction, and the Communist conquest of hundreds of millions of people in Eastern Europe, Korea and China in the succeeding five years. Today, not all the costs have been tallied, but the misery involved is on a massive scale, largely imposed by our leaders on their own nations by effectively shutting down the economy, and the dismal aftermath will remain for a long time to come.
We can celebrate and commemorate the heroic actions of our ancestors in defeating evil military dictatorships seventy-five years ago, but there will not be much to celebrate for us after COVID-19. Yet, we can hope that somebody, somewhere, will remember enough from this tragic living history, so that we do not experience its ilk, or the immensely negative consequences of its panicky containment efforts, ever again.
Ian Madsen is a senior policy analyst with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.