As many readers may know, I am currently hospitalised in Madrid after having tested positive for covid-19. My recovery has been slow, but the prospects are encouraging. Although remaining isolated from my loved ones has been unpleasant, it is a relief that these hardships are befalling us in the twenty-first century, with so many tools at our disposal to remain socially connected. More traditional pastimes – listening to music, reading, and, indeed, writing – have been a gift as well.
For many hours, I have relied upon a distinguished companion to endure this confinement: none other than Winston Churchill. I have always been fascinated by the wartime British prime minister, and these days I have been able to discover new details about his life, thanks to an extraordinary biography by the historian Andrew Roberts.
Churchill’s admirable resilience throughout the second world war is an endless source of inspiration, particularly in times like these. His character and track record – both undoubtedly complex – remind us that heroism is compatible with imperfection, that presence of mind is compatible with contradiction, and that courage is compatible with hesitation. Characters like Churchill deserve to be recognised, which is not to say they should be uncritically glorified.
Our governments should be given enough wiggle room to tackle this emergency properly, but that should not be taken to mean carte blanche – not now and not ever
In the private wars that many of us are already waging against covid-19, and that many others will, unfortunately, have to fight as well, we will surely experience some of the “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” that Churchill spoke of in May 1940. But we should also try to emulate his buoyant spirit. The virus reportedly alters some patients’ senses of smell and taste, but there is no reason why it should numb our sense of humour.
From a collective standpoint, it also makes sense to take a page out of Churchill’s book. In recent days, many world leaders have claimed that we are at war against the virus – and, to some extent, they are right. As in any other war, resources need to mobilised, and a host of civic values – such as duty, comradeship, and public service – need to be promoted with renewed conviction. The outstanding health professionals who, in Spain and all over the world, are giving their absolute best to fight the virus and alleviate the suffering of the ill are an example to us all.
We are facing a crisis of historic proportions. But if what we are going through can indeed be called a war, it is certainly not a typical one. After all, today’s enemy is shared by all of humankind, and the mobilisation of state resources must go hand in hand with the demobilisation of most of the population.
It is important not to lose sight of these and other differences. Otherwise, the war rhetoric could cloud our judgment, leaving us vulnerable to certain traps. To avoid these undesirable scenarios, allow me to ring a few alarm bells and raise a few caveats.
Firstly, we must not mistake strong leadership – which will certainly be needed in these dire circumstances – for inflexible leadership. Our governments should be given enough wiggle room to tackle this emergency properly, but that should not be taken to mean carte blanche – not now and not ever.
Ensuring maximal preservation of civil liberties and continuing to hold our leaders accountable is not just an ethical imperative; it is also our best line of defence against threats like the one we face today. Doing so does not weaken our societies; on the contrary, it enriches the public debate, thus increasing our chances of identifying the most suitable responses.
Secondly, we must not mistake patriotic responsibility – which, no doubt, will be needed and welcome – for exclusive forms of nationalism. This is no time for scapegoating or succumbing to panic and liberating our worst instincts. The ongoing crisis will be resolved only through rationality, compassion, and mutual understanding, both within and beyond our borders. All avenues of international scientific and technological cooperation must be explored, and always in a spirit of solidarity, which today, more than ever, overlaps fully with our own interests. The key to overcoming the current crisis is to ensure that the global spread of best practices outpaces the global spread of the virus.
Last, we must ensure that the socioeconomic landscape that emerges from this metaphorical war is in no way akin to those left behind after a real one. Reconstruction efforts must, in other words, be conceived preventively rather than reactively, and the shock-absorbing machinery must start working at full speed immediately.
European Union institutions and EU member states alike need to commit to do whatever it takes in this respect, to rise to the challenge. Other multilateral organisations and forums will also be indispensable in designing an effective joint response. Looking further into the future, we will need to make sure not to forget the many virtues of globalisation – which, of course, requires careful re-evaluation, but not outright rejection.
Over the coming weeks, much will be at stake collectively, and for some of us also individually. Today, uncertainty about what the post-pandemic world will look like is rife. But we do know it will be built upon the words and deeds we choose now. We would do well, therefore, to look the evil before us in the eye, while never losing sight of our own future and that of coming generations.
Humankind has overcome harder tests than this one, and the actions needed now are in no way equivalent to those undertaken during the second world war. But, even if the covid-19 crisis is not remembered as our respective countries’ “finest hour,” to borrow Churchill’s words, let it at least be remembered as our own.
This piece first appeared on Project Syndicate.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.