How the world changed after global wars and might change this time


Virus attacking a cell.

How a virus infects a healthy cell.

A century ago, my grandfather fought in a Great War from which he never returned. Not only did the war change my family forever, but it also changed the world. In Russia, the Bolsheviks took over. Germany faced not only the greatest inflation ever seen but also the resignation of the Kaiser. ‘I commend the German Reich to your loving care,’ he said when abdicating to the new Chancellor of republican Germany. In Britain strikes reached and all-time high in 1921, only to be bettered in 1926, and the Labour Party gained an unshakeable position in British politics.

In less than a generation, the world was at war again. My father survived and went on to live a full life. Determined to stop future world wars, nations bound together by forming the United Nations within six months of the war’s end.

Today, and past my allotted span, the world faces a new global war, but this time we are all united against the common foe, a virus named SARS-Cov-2. We have had global pandemics before. The word quarantine derived from the 40 days used to try and prevent spread of the Black Death in the 14th century. In 1918, Spanish Flu, so called because the Spanish press reported it, caused Britons and Germans to die in the hundreds of thousands but neither side wanted to confess its existence lest it weaken their position in the eyes of the enemy. They were at war. Spain was neutral.

Today, the SARS-Cov-2 outbreak is played out on TV screens, mobile phones and computers in real time. Country by country comparisons are compiled by respected institutes as each government faces the same issues and has the same goal of protecting its population. The “war” is ongoing but the countermeasures will have significant effects. Three outcomes can be considered.

  • A global recession
  • A change in the way we respect our environment
  • A realisation that sacrifices have to be made to achieve real change (stopping the virus or the climate catastrophe)

In Britain we have seen the welfare state wax and wane. Although it goes against the grain, this Tory government should be congratulated by and large for their initial response to expand substantially the welfare state in response to the epidemic. Hopefully, we will not see the mistakes of 2008 heaped upon the economy post this outbreak.

In 2008, the banks failed and people with money worried. The banks demanded, and got, billions, but it was not the bankers who suffered subsequently. The government borrowed to pay the banks and our national debt ‘soared’ to around 75% of GDP. The ordinary “working man” (without money) suffered ten years of austerity: frozen wages and declining public services. In retrospect, the Tories have to thank Nigel Farage for bringing up the red herring of the EU and David Cameron for being so weak as to promise and then allow a referendum. This European navel gazing diverted attention from the government’s horrific austerity record.  In addition, the internecine fighting within a divided Labour party failed the country in those ten years. This cannot be repeated.

Let’s hope Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Prime Minister Boris Johnson have more sense than Osborne and Cameron. Yes, we’ll need to repay billions to get the debt down, but after the second world war, our national debt reached 250% of GDP. Then the voters wanted an end to wartime austerity, and no return to pre-war economic depression. They voted Labour. In government, Labour created the NHS and the nationalised a swathe of operations and industries including the Bank of England! Britain in the Attlee years changed more than under any other government, before or since. The welfare reforms, and to a lesser extent the great experiment of state control of industry, had a profound effect on the way the people saw themselves and their country. And what they saw, on the whole, was pleasing.

SARS-Cov-2 causes the disease Covid-19. It has laid bare both man’s inhumanity to man with people almost fighting over toilet rolls in supermarkets in a me, me, me frenzy, and man’s love-thy-neighbour spirit, with people of all ages and walks of life helping others, especially the old and vulnerable with food parcels and many other acts of kindness.

The big cities are eerily quiet with cleaner air. Levels of oxides of nitrogen (NOx) have fallen substantially in big city streets but not in the country where the wind speed plays a big role – see Chilbolton bar at the bottom. (BAU= Business as usual)

Corona Virus blog graphLevels of small particulates (PM2.5 ) have also fallen a lot. PM2.5 means the mass per cubic metre of air of particles with a size (diameter) generally less than 2.5 micrometres (µm). The countryside is almost unaffected. The lambs gambol and frolic in the sunshine and the cows trudge to milking twice a day, but overhead no planes fly so perhaps we’ll get a miniscule reduction in CO2 which will help reduce global warming!

A global recession

This seems inevitable. American unemployment has spiked faster than a NASA rocket. When U.S. sneezes the whole world catches cold. Bruce Kasman, Chief Economist at JP Morgan, says, ‘There is no longer doubt that the longest global expansion on record will end this quarter. We now think that the COVID-19 shock will produce a global recession, as nearly all of the world contracts over the three months between February and April.’ Every newspaper carries reports of pleas from someone or some company for help with this or that. Airlines, cruise ships, holiday companies, restaurants, hotels, and so many small or medium sized businesses, the list is endless, have expenses and no revenues. Nor does it look like revenues will flow quickly. The result? Not only bankruptcies, but price hikes from the healthy surviving companies, as competition will have been eliminated or at least substantially reduced for a year or two.

A change in the way we respect our environment

The relationship between man and the environment has been breaking down. Not only do we accelerate climate change, but this pandemic, and before it SARS, originated from the excessively close animal/ human contacts. The SARS outbreak of 2002-3 involved a different strain of coronavirus, when it transferred from civets whose meat is considered a delicacy in China to humans. This time pangolins are suspected. A few people on the fringes have complained about poor animal husbandry standards. Their voices have been largely ignored as we want cheap chickens or transport live animals across borders and other new trends. Today, we “manufacture” food. Globally a new agency for animal hygiene standards with enforcement teeth needs to be established.

A realisation that sacrifices have to be made to achieve real change (stopping the virus or the climate catastrophe)

In the UK, political parties have been playing lip service to climate change, pushing “Nett Zero” carbon dioxide emission targets out and not even meeting milestones. It took Greta Thunberg a teenage Swede to grab the headlines and expose the lack of action. We must realise that we must move to a better more sustainable planet and that means sacrifices for everyone including those most able to withstand any change. The virus has attacked everyone, climate change affects everyone.

We have never seen our government so engaged in our future since the two world wars. They have rolled up their sleeves to lead us in tackling the virus, now they must do the same with a response to our changing climate.

Governments must have learned more better co-operation during this crisis, surely they can see the need for sharper action on the climate?


3 thoughts on “How the world changed after global wars and might change this time”

  1. Very thoughtful piece Richard, I think you got the balance just about right.
    Living here in the US in sunny Florida it is difficult ti imagine the privations that folks in the UK or in our large cities have to put up with. I fear that like the post 2008 restart we will soon go back to our old ways and that will be not only sad but potentially ruinous to the global economy and to the Globe itself. Stay safe

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