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The War on COVID–19: Lessons from Wartime

soldiers landing on beach
Is the war on COVID-19 really like World War II? Mark Harrison, Professor of economics and expert on Russia and the Soviet bloc during the war years reflects on this comparison is an exert from his latest blog.

Many people have likened the war on COVID-19 to World War II. Those I've noted range from US Senators Bernie Sanders and Lindsey Graham to the head of Britain's Office of Budget Responsibility Robert Chote. Our own Boris Johnson says it is as if we have a wartime government.

I have some sympathy with this view. The time we are going through will be seen as an historical watershed, like the two world wars. The reason is that it is changing the way of life of every family worldwide, in a way quite unlike 9/11 or a financial panic.

Moreover its effect will be persistent, at least for several years. Our world after COVID-19 will be more nervous, more prepared, and less globalized and interlinked for some time to come. When historical novels are written about our time, every author will have choose the setting: before, during, or after the coronovirus epidemic?

Are there any similarities in the challenges facing governments now and at the start of World War 2?

There are several similarities, although not a perfect fit. As in WW2, we face a clear enemy: a disease. It is a surprise attack – even more than in WW2. In 1941 the Soviet Union suffered a surprise attack by Germany and the USA suffered a surprise attack by Japan, but still most people had seen a war building since the 1930s, so just about all governments had incorporated war into their thinking.

This is not the case today: we are at a standing start.

Resistance requires resources to be mobilized urgently into the medical sector: people, equipment, power supplies and provisions. At the same time the enemy is striking at our supply chains – it attacks economic cooperation and the division of labour. It is forcing us into isolation and self-sufficiency and isolated, self-sufficient people are very unproductive, so our economic capacity is falling. This is what bombing and invasion did in WW2, but the coronavirus is doing it much more efficiently. It is already among us and it is unseen.

How did governments manage shortages and supply chain disruptions?

In WW2 the main tools were licensing and rationing. These converted our market economy into a command economy. There were still markets and money and prices, but for the most part you could not spend money on anything without a government license. The most important exception was bread: through the war you could always buy as much bread as you wanted, so no one went undernourished. This made Britain different from many other countries at war.

But to buy steel or components, a business needed a license. To import materials, you needed a license. To borrow for investment, you needed a licence. You got this licence only if you were on the government’s priority list: important for the war effort. In this way the government could protect the essential industries and the inessential parts of the economy withered.

The problem was inflation – not price inflation, but priority inflation. At first, a few things were seen as crucial – priority A1. As the economy became more and more stretched many other things competed for top priority. When everything was top priority, the priority system stopped working, and government committees had to set limits even on top priorities. You’d think you could never have enough soldiers in a war, but in 1942 the government had to cap the armed forces at 5 million in order to keep enough workers in the war factories and other essential industries.

Did governments have to make things up on the fly?

To some extent. But most governments had spent a long time thinking about how the next war would go, and this helped. It was only 20 years from WW1 and every government had tried to learn the lessons. WW1 was much more improvised than World War II. In WW1 it took years to learn how to get out of the trenches and move on the battlefield. It took years to learn about the public-private partnership and the public finance necessary to ramp up production. So, in WW2 governments generally made fewer mistakes than in WW1.

That’s also probably why Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong are coping better today. They had the experience of SARS in 2003, and they were determined to learn from it.

What were the long term effects on how the government ran the economy? And on society?

I think we are going to see a lot more compulsion in a short time. Certainly, compulsion in terms of quarantine. Everyone needs to understand there’s no such thing as a public health measure that doesn’t end up infringing on someone’s rights. The clue is in the name: public, not private health. The persistence of these regulatory changes may be for years after, but not for decades after.

I would like to live in a free society and in most settings, it seems to me, free markets will do the best job. But in the present setting I would support a little more of the clarity that comes from compulsory rules. How do I reconcile these things? You can think about compulsion in two ways. One is the Chinese way: do as the unelected party tells you or fear the consequences. But there is also a British way, which is different: when the elected government tells you it’s your turn to do the right thing. It’s your turn to serve in a hospital, or stay at home, or go out to buy the goods you need. There’s a line: don’t step out of it.

That’s how it worked in Britain in WW2. There were lots of rules, which most people accepted, and the few that didn’t were vigorously pursued, with the support of most people. It did continue for too long after the war; that’s something we should aim to avoid.

Published

3 March 2020

About

Mark HarrisonMark Harrison is a professor of economics at the University of Warwick (UK) and a research associate at CAGE. He is an expert on Russia and the Soviet bloc, defence and security, and fighting, cheating, stealing, lying and spying.

Read his full blog here.