“Well, it’s a national emergency,” I said to my grandmother yesterday as she lamented that she couldn’t find toilet paper (Brits read: loo roll) at the supermarket. “People need to stop hoarding and start realizing that we might have shortages. We might need to ration. America needs a little Blitz Spirit.”
For those unfamiliar with the term, Blitz Spirit refers to the attitude of Londoners during the blitzkrieg, or German aerial bombardment of London during the Second World War. It’s marked by stoicism, resilience, and cheerfulness in the face of a perilous situation. Over the ensuing decades it has entered British civic religion as the defining national trait, a stiff upper lip, “keep calm and carry on” attitude.
Writing in The Atlantic, Helen Lewis explained why Blitz Spirit won’t be enough to save the UK from the coronavirus. “As the government inevitably restricts Britons’ lives to slow the spread of the coronavirus,” she writes, “the country has to reject the voices urging us that we are overreacting, that we should stoically stagger on, as Saint George or Boudicca or Winston Churchill might have done.” Rather than carrying on as usual, this time we must do the opposite and change our behaviour to meet the moment. Anything less could be catastrophic.
She is right. During the Blitz, Londoners went to pubs, gathered around bombed out homes, mingled in parks and continued going to work and school. In the face of a deadly pandemic that is the worst thing you can do. Social distancing works and, as experts have said, flattening the curve—meaning slowing the spread of the virus so as not to overwhelm our medical resources—is imperative. Doing that means staying home a lot more than we’re used to and, rather than pulling together as a community, staying as far away from one another as possible.
So while in that regard Blitz Spirit is the last thing we need, there is another way to look at it—one I think we should emulate in the face of this international emergency. Yes, the dogged determination to just get on with things was a defining trait of Londoners during the Second World War, but they also understood, more or less, that in order to provide for the greater good they would have to make personal sacrifices. Foodstuff would be rationed by the state, curfews would be implemented, children would be separated from their parents in evacuations. None of this was easy, some of it was mandatory, but all of it was necessary in order to get through the crisis at hand.
I was thinking about this yesterday as I read through the comments on a Facebook post in which I asked folks how concerned they were about coronavirus. Most people were at least somewhat worried, if not for themselves then for their more susceptible friends and relations.
Yet you couldn’t be on social media yesterday and not see empty store shelves where people have panic-bought everything from the aforementioned loo roll to, according to one Facebook friend, heads of lettuce. And while most of my friends—which, it should be said is obviously not a random sampling nor a scientific poll—said they are at least a little concerned, others admitted to being shockingly blasé about it all. Whether because they think God will protect them, or they are young and healthy, or they don’t think they’ll get it, they’re going about their days and ridiculing the “panic” of everyone else.
It really bothered me, not only because this kind of attitude will help spread the virus far and wide, but because it illustrated an incredible selfishness—just as those panic-buying all sorts of items are demonstrating. Hell, people are already stealing NHS hand sanitser. Our societies are incredibly selfish, and in moments of national crisis that is incredibly dangerous.
Dr. Patti Minter, a history professor I studied under at Western Kentucky University who is now a State Representative in Kentucky, once said to me that “Ronald Reagan made it okay for Americans to be selfish again.” It’s a comment that has stuck with me over the ensuing years, and one I think is equally applicable to Margaret Thatcher and the UK. We are an incredibly selfish society, both countries, prioritising our needs over the needs of our community.
That happened during the Blitz too, of course. There was a black market for goods being rationed, and people tried to cheat the system. But by and large, people understood that in a moment of national crisis personal sacrifice was required. They made it without complaint. It was what needed to be done, so they did it.
We need that kind of moral clarity and certitude now. During the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, society nearly disintegrated. People didn’t heed the warnings, gathered in large crowds, the virus spread, and then it was every man for himself. Folks wouldn’t check on the sick, wouldn’t bring food to those infected, no one would bury the bodies—people self-isolated too late, but when they did, my God did they self-isolate.
In a 2017 essay for Smithsonian Magazine, historian John M. Barry explains how bad it got:
In Philadelphia, the head of Emergency Aid pleaded, “All who are free from the care of the sick at home… report as early as possible…on emergency work.” But volunteers did not come. The Bureau of Child Hygiene begged people to take in—just temporarily—children whose parents were dying or dead; few replied. Emergency Aid again pleaded, “We simply must have more volunteer helpers….These people are almost all at the point of death. Won’t you…come to our help?” Still nothing. Finally, Emergency Aid’s director turned bitter and contemptuous: “Hundreds of women…had delightful dreams of themselves in the roles of angels of mercy…Nothing seems to rouse them now…There are families in which the children are actually starving because there is no one to give them food. The death rate is so high and they still hold back.”
And this is where Blitz Spirit comes in. As much as it has always been about having a stiff upper lip, it has also been about doing what needs to be done for your community and your country. We cannot give into the fear, but also cannot give into the selfishness. I see it happening already, and it’s deeply concerning. We need to face the reality that the only way we’re going to survive coronavirus is if we all pull together.
That means you may have to go without toilet paper. You might not be able to go to your local coffeeshop or bar. Those concert tickets you have? You might not be able to use them. That big trip you were going on? Cancelled.
Suck it up. Take one for the team. Even if you think you’ll be fine, think about all the people who won’t. Think about what happens if you get sick and spread it to your grandpa, or your elderly neighbour, or the little old woman trying to fill her prescription at the chemist (Americans read: pharmacy). We need to think about one another right now, which starts with accepting that we’ll have to make some sacrifices over the next few months.
So stay home. Watch Netflix. Make your own coffee. Don’t horde. Don’t panic-buy. In fact, don’t panic at all; panic is useless and counterproductive. But accept that things are going to get hard for you and for everyone else. This is a national crisis, whether you’re in the US or UK. It’s going to hurt.
We’re all going to feel it one way or another. That’s what happens in a national crisis. But remember, the operative word there is not crisis. It is national.
Show some Blitz Spirit and do what needs to be done for the country, not for yourself.
Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer based in Tennessee. His work has appeared at the Independent, Huff Post UK, Salon, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @skylarjordan and become a sustainer at www.patreon.com/skylarjordan