Flashpoints | Society

Going to ‘War’ Against Coronavirus

Lessons in home front mobilization from war-time East Asia.

By Paul Kreitman for
Going to ‘War’ Against Coronavirus

Immigration officer check the body temperature of and give hand sanitizer to a foreign tourist in Bali, Indonesia on March 23, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Firdia Lisnawati

In these dark times, the word “war” seems to be on everyone’s lips. The first world leader to use the phrase in the context of the novel coronavirus was Xi Jinping, who in early February called for a “people’s war” as China struggled to contain COVID-19. As the coronavirus has spread beyond China’s borders other leaders have echoed his rhetoric. “We are at war,” Emmanuel Macron told French citizens. Boris Johnson has exhorted U.K. citizens to invoke the “Blitz Spirit” of wartime Britain, and in the United States draft-dodger Donald Trump has, with characteristic grandiosity, declared himself a “wartime president.”

But in the fight against COVID-19, what lessons can we actually learn from wartime history? Parallels have already been drawn between the wholesale nationalization of wartime industries and the vast levels of state support for the economy during the current crisis. But there has so far been little discussion of a broader feature of wartime society: mass mobilization. During World War II many states, among them China and Japan, took drastic steps to reorganize their society, not only by conscripting soldiers to fight in the war, but also mobilizing the public on the home front. Many of these steps blended state and society in hitherto unseen ways. Support for the war effort was maintained not only through top-down diktats or calls to individual patriotism, but also by mobilizing local communities into mass organizations that molded public behavior through suasion as well as coercion.

These mass organizations took a number of forms, and here I will sketch only a few of them. Most dramatically, all combatant states in World War II devoted immense resources to air raid precautions. Limiting the casualties from bombing was (rightly) understood to be crucial, not only to protect the workers who churned out munitions for the war effort, but also to maintain morale on the home front. At the local level, air raid precautions consisted of committees dedicated to constructing and maintaining bomb shelters, conducting evacuation drills, firefighting, and providing first aid to victims. They also involved intensive surveillance of the population. Wardens recruited from the local community patrolled urban neighborhoods to maintain strict night-time blackout conditions: ensuring that curtains were sealed with tape and censuring anyone rash (or traitorous) enough to venture on to the streets with a torch or bicycle light. In some cases even glancing up at night while wearing spectacles could be enough to earn you a caution.

Some of the earliest instances of mass aerial bombing occurred in China. Shortly after the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) the Japanese Army bombed a number of cities, including Shanghai, Nanjing, and Guangzhou, in an attempt to cow the Nationalist Chinese government into surrendering. When the Nationalists instead retreated inland the Japanese bombers followed them, first pounding Wuhan and then the new Nationalist wartime capital at Chongqing. Between 1938 and 1943 Chongqing suffered from over 200 air raids.

The Nationalist government responded to this unprecedented bombardment in a number of ways. First, it created a patchwork air-raid warning system comprised of wireless radio, sirens, flags, and temple bells. Though in wartime Chongqing air raid shelters were generally only accessible to the wealthy and well-connected, air raid warnings did give the rest of the population a precious window of time to flee the city. The Nationalist government also organized as many as 8,000 people into urban fire-fighting teams, which at least limited the damage caused by the bombing.

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Japanese authorities prepared, if anything, more thoroughly than the Chinese. Soon after its invasion of China began, the government implemented an Anti-Aircraft Defense Law mandating the formation of local committees to enforce blackout control, disinfection, anti-gas attack countermeasures, evacuation, and relief, as well as helping with monitoring, communication, and warnings. Wartime propaganda repeatedly emphasized the collective nature of these efforts. As one early poster put it, “Let’s all guard our homes together.” Indeed, Japanese air raid precautions functioned relatively effectively through to the last years of the war, although ultimately they were not sufficient to stop urban residents fleeing to the countryside en masse after the Allied firebombing of cities.

“Raising the People’s Awareness About Aerial Bombing:

Let’s All Guard Our Homes Together” (1937)

Other mass organizations also proliferated during the war. Neighborhood associations in Japan (and also the U.K. and Germany) dispatched housewives to go door to door, promoting thrift and frugality, and encouraging people to invest their savings into government war bonds. This served two purposes: it channeled funds to the munitions industry but also encouraged patriotic solidarity, making people feel they were investing quite literally in the war effort. The tragedy was that after Japan’s defeat the value of those bonds was wiped out by hyperinflation, leaving savers with essentially no return on their investments. Similar pressure was applied to get people (mainly women) to economize in their daily life, skimping on luxuries and reusing clothes and textiles. Toward the end of the war householders were even being induced to donate their pots and pans to be melted down into Mitsubishi Zeros.

Wartime mass organizations also played a crucial role in providing medical care and maintaining public hygiene. National branches of the International Red Cross supervised local chapters that recruited and trained paramedics, and also coordinated the distribution of medical supplies from the home front to the battle front. Overseas Chinese based in Singapore and the United States oversaw perhaps the most literal form of mass mobilization, organizing transnational banking donation drives to support wounded soldiers at the front. In Japan, home front mobilization helped to keep human biological matter flowing the other way as well. When Tokyo’s existing system for collecting night soil broke down, neighborhood associations drew up rotas for householders to take turns emptying latrines and dumping their contents into manholes and nearby rivers.

Many of these mass organizations survived in some form or another well into the postwar era. The Ministry for Health and Welfare, which today oversees Japan’s socialized health care system, was created in the midst of the Pacific War. In the aftermath of defeat, Japanese neighborhood associations continued to promote public hygiene, “scientific” parenting, and “rational” (i.e. thrifty) consumption — this time to aid national reconstruction. In Japan to this day, household recycling is managed by voluntary organizations that ensure rubbish is separated correctly and old newspapers are nearly bundled with string.

In China, the legacy of wartime mass mobilization is perhaps the most pronounced. In the early years of the war against Japan, the Nationalist Government formed a Natural Resources Council in order to direct key industries such as coal mines, steel plants, and pharmaceutical companies toward producing materials for the war effort. The National Resource Council survived, in one form or another, long after the end of World War II, and helped to shape industrial policy in both Taiwan and mainland China. The work units that became an essential organizing structure of everyday life in post-1949 China were in fact a product of Nationalist wartime mobilization. Many of the Chinese Communist Party’s tools of mass mobilization were also forged in war, not only against Japan but against the Nationalists. (In this sense there are parallels to the Soviet Union, another “uncivil society” whose hierarchical party structure took shape during the crucible of the Russian Civil War.)

How might we learn from the history of wartime mass mobilization to suppress COVID-19 today? In fact, there are clear continuities. China called on many of its mass organizations in its initial battle to contain coronavirus in Hubei province, where the virus first emerged. Chief among these are the network of Party cadres drawn from the elite echelons of society and installed in government offices, state-owned enterprises, work units, and even private companies. These cadres have been charged with enacting a sweeping network of hygiene control measures staffed by uniformed volunteers drawn from local communities. Chinese citizens must submit to temperature checks at every bus stop, shop and restaurant entrance, and gated community. Anyone with a high temperature is directed to a dedicated local testing center, and those who test positive for COVID-19 are then quarantined in a treatment center in a nearby hotel, gymnasium or sports stadium. Home quarantine is not an option, for — as the Chinese government correctly assessed — the home is a primary site of viral transition. It is these measures (more than the large-scale lockdown of whole cities or regions), that have most effectively curtailed the spread of the disease in mainland China.

Mass organization in this manner potentially has a role to play in suppressing COVID-19 elsewhere as well. The idea will doubtless make many people uncomfortable. Quite apart from anything else, prolonging any form of social distancing for months on end will impose immense economic, social and psychological costs. Voices from across the political spectrum, ranging from President Trump to Thomas Friedman to Giorgio Agamben, are already suggesting it may not be worth it. And any enforcement of social distancing will require oppressive, Foucauldian mechanisms of surveillance. Furthermore, those on the left are often instinctively suspicious of anything with a militaristic tincture to it, especially if it empowers would-be authoritarians. And those on the right may balk at drawing any lessons at all from a Leninist authoritarian state like China. Both will correctly view wartime-style mass mobilization as illiberal.

Indeed there was often an unpleasant underside to wartime home front mobilization. Using mass organizations to surveil public behavior will necessarily empower not only responsible citizens but also a certain number of nags, busybodies, and bullies to impose their will on the public at large. In wartime Japan, men too old or infirm to fight volunteered to wade into packed railway carriages with bullhorns, hectoring people not to shove. Many of us probably know the kind of person who would take a little too much pleasure in doing something like that, although in this case it would involve patrolling the streets with a thermometer.

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But these are desperate times. Failing to flatten the curve of COVID-19 contagion could overwhelm health services around the world, costing millions of lives. Conversely, a successful suppression effort will at best prolong the pandemic, potentially for over a year. In that case most people will need to observe some degree of social distancing for months on end. So far, most liberal democracies have been reluctant to follow China’s example. Many governments have instead reacted by demobilizing their populations. In his speech announcing a nationwide lockdown, the British prime minister talked of “enlisting” every single citizen to help combat the virus — by staying at home. In fact the very language of “social distancing” suggests a kind of withdrawal from society.

Instead, liberal democratic governments have relied on a mixture of top-down measures (closing schools, bars, restaurants, and large gatherings) and exhortations for individual citizens to behave responsibly. This may not be enough. Many individuals, young men in particular, seem reluctant to stay home for even a few days, let alone for the many months it will take to suppress COVID-19. And it is doubtful whether security services in liberal democracies possess the manpower to enforce social distancing at a granular level, at least without recourse to a massive and alienating infrastructure of digital surveillance that might prove difficult to dismantle after the crisis is passed.

Home front mobilization could potentially strike a middle ground between the two extremes of laissez-faire liberalism and a total lockdown enforced by security services. Many people would on balance rather have their temperatures checked by a neighbor, even a bossy one, than by a machine or a stranger in khaki. Locally-run mass organizations may also be able to provide mutual aid to the especially needy, as well as help maintain morale over the many months it will take to suppress COVID-19. And while wartime mass organizations became permanent fixtures of society in China and the Soviet Union, in countries with stronger traditions of liberal democracy they were either disbanded or scaled back after the end of the war. Some, such as the neighborhood associations that supervise recycling in Japan and Germany to this day, could even be seen as a windfall legacy.

If liberal democracies decide to pursue mass mobilization (and they may decide not to), then they have a lot of catching up to do. Mass organizations in most democracies no longer possess the same membership as they did in the wartime and immediate postwar eras. As late as the 1980s governments could have called upon the Boy Scouts, rotary clubs, veterans associations, neighborhood watches, and even bowling leagues to implement such measures. But membership in all these organizations has plummeted over the past 40 years. Now most of us, as the sociologist Robert Putnam observed, “bowl alone.” In that sense, as in others, the virus has a head start on us.

Still, there is reason to be hopeful. Many mass organizations survive, if only in skeleton form, and will surely be only too willing to welcome new members. For those struggling to work out what to with their children now that the schools are closed, the Scouts would make an obvious place to send them. Even where mass organizations no longer exist, there is reason to hope that new institutions can be formed to meet the current crisis. You can start one yourself if you want. If we want maintain social distancing over the long haul then, paradoxically, we may need to band together.

Paul Kreitman is Assistant Professor in 20th Century Japanese History at Columbia University.