Total War – Total Health

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We have been living through a time where a threat to our welfare has been addressed by a call for the whole of society to respond. This insistence that everyone plays their part against a common enemy has been taken up with the metaphor of war. We are all playing our part in defeating this mortal threat.

Everyone must engage is social distancing, thoroughly washing their hands and wherever possible stay at home. For many this will be difficult with the loss of income and restrictions on the enjoyment of life. Of course these remain minor privations compared to the people who have the threat to their lives because they have compromised health or risky jobs in the health service.

For those who lived through the Second World War the metaphor is very real. They will remember the negative experience of great threat and the positive experience of solidarity and community. One of the remarkable expressions of sharing this time is the Thursday night clapping for the NHS.

The Second World War is described as Total War in that the whole of society was involved. Able bodied people were drafted into the armed services and the factories. The combat was brought to the ‘home front’ with air raids. Preparations of society were made with evacuation of children, issuing gas masks, removing street signs and establishing the Home Guard.

Total War is different from so many that went before. Even the wide ranging and protracted Napoleonic Wars it was mostly only the combatants who were affected. The first truly modern war was the American Civil War. This was partly because of the breech loading rifle which was so deadly and partly because it was recognised that the enemy’s capacity to wage war was enabled by the whole of society.

General Sherman followed a scorched earth policy. His Union army, destroyed military targets as well as industry, infrastructure, and civilian property. The disruption of the Confederacy's economy and transportation networks broke the back of the Confederacy and helped lead to its eventual surrender.

Now this might seem a very bleak expansion of the metaphor of war and something of an historical diversion. But does this negative lesson of warfare consuming the whole of society have a positive lesson about building a robust future?

The big lesson from these weeks is how important our health service is. The dedication and sacrifice of its staff. The shame of a lack of basic resources such as personal protective equipment. The importance of experts to guide policy. The indiscriminate suffering of its staff regardless of race or nationality. The dependence on the health service for good funding.

A lot of these issues have been left at the back of political conversation for decades. The market is supposed to deliver prosperity. But how are priorities not governed by making money resolved? Individual enjoyment and happiness is considered a prime goal. But what of dedication and self sacrifice? The place of migrants and settled immigrants in our economy are not assessed and valued. There remain prejudiced attitudes that can be used for political ends to divert attention from the reality of our society.

I accept that last paragraph is open to many points of view. But what I would say is that it contains subjects that have not been open for serious discussion and we have been paying the price.

We live in a world with new and huge challenges. The Covid-19 epidemic has shone a light on how frail our society can be. We will not address it with a literal war but the human resources of fortitude and solidarity will be required. Another even larger issue is the environmental crisis. Chasing economic growth with means that heat the earth will have to be curtailed. How do we turn that tide?

I think we are invited to see society afresh, that we are bound to each other and there are true priorities to be identified and established. At the end of the Second World War one of these was health for all. When Covid-19 is over may there be health and all that makes for good life be made available to all.

Best wishes

Alan Keeler