President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses members of the South African Defence Force. Picture: REUTERS / SIPHIWE SIBEKO
President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses members of the South African Defence Force. Picture: REUTERS / SIPHIWE SIBEKO

It has become commonplace to refer to the “war” against the coronavirus. Are we at war? What are the implications of being “at war”?

President Cyril Ramaphosa and his cabinet certainly believe we are at war. On March 26 Ramaphosa put on full army uniform and addressed members of the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) at Doornkop military base. “We are not the only country waging war against an invisible enemy – coronavirus … Tonight you begin the most important calling of your mission, to save the lives of South Africans,” he told the gathered soldiers.

US President Donald Trump said the spread of Covid-19 is “our big war”. “It’s a medical war. We have to win this war,” he said. In another meeting, Trump said he sees himself as “a wartime president”. French president Emmanuel Macron also told his parliament: “We are at war.”

The language of war is consistent with these leaders’ actions too. Ramaphosa has over the past month huddled with his “command council” while British Prime Minister Boris Johnson returned to Downing Street this week to chair his “war cabinet”.

If we are indeed at war, or if we are to continue to use the “war” metaphor, then we must begin to learn a few things from actual wars. It is this:

The first is that wars are long, which means our country is going to suffer serious hardship for a long time to come. We should prepare for that.

The second is that wars are expensive, which means we are going to become a poor country in the medium to long term. Are we prepared for that?

Third, a war is not a battle – there will be some wins along the way, but some defeats too. Indeed, in two years we may have made some progress in the war, but still not have won. Wars are not always conclusive.

Fourth, there are no messiahs.

Wars are long

So, how long will the Covid-19 war last? Historically, leaders have been very optimistic about the duration of wars. Expectations are that the war will be short, sharp and inexpensive, and will be made sweet by victory.

Current leaders are already getting that wrong. In February, Trump told a rally in New Hampshire: “By April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, [the coronavirus] miraculously goes away.”

Well, April is here and the virus has not “miraculously” gone away.

Trump is not the first leader to get things horribly wrong about how long a war would last. In August 1914, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II told troops going into what would be known as World War 1: “You will be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees.”

Yes, well. World War 1 raged for 4½ years. At least 10-million people were killed.

All wars, not just so-called “real wars” with guns and tanks, are long – and sometimes inconclusive.

Ever heard of former US president Richard Nixon? In July 1971 he declared a “war on drugs”, saying narcotics were “public enemy No 1”. Nearly 50 years and billions of dollars later the “war on drugs” is a global phenomenon. The drugs and the druglords are still winning.

Wars are expensive

When the US responded to the 9/11 attacks in 2001, then defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld requested billions from congress for the “war on terror”. Rumsfeld foresaw a short campaign: “five days or five weeks or five months, but it certainly isn’t going to last any longer than that”.

The US invaded Iraq in 2003. American troops were only withdrawn from that country in 2011. And while George W Bush’s administration had requested $21bn for reconstruction in Iraq and Afghan, the war ended up costing a staggering $1-trillion.

Winning a battle isn’t winning the way

In this war, a win may not always be a win. The coronavirus has so far outsmarted and outwitted us. It continues to do so. Last week the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned that there is no evidence that, as previously reported, people who have recovered from Covid-19 are protected from a second infection.

We are therefore far from the end of this road. Pandemics do not slink away into the night just like that. Take Ebola. The Democratic Republic of Congo declared its 10th (yes, 10th) outbreak of Ebola in 40 years on August 1 2018.

“On April 10 this year – just three days before the outbreak was expected to be declared over, given that the last person was declared cured on March 3 – a new case was recorded in Beni. Six further cases have been recorded in the same area. The outbreak is not yet over and there is a continued need for vigilance,” says Médecins sans Frontières.

Expect no messiah

Another “war” lesson from Covid-19 is that there will be no single conquering hero. Wars are not battles – they are won by the many, not one great leader.

When Covid-19 hit, some Western leaders thought there would be a short and sharp pandemic and they would then be lauded as saviours.

Johnson, a great fan and biographer of Winston Churchill, thought he would emulate his hero by largely ignoring the unfolding crisis and toughing it out in a “keep calm and carry on” fashion.

On March 3, when Britons were already dying of Covid-19, he still boasted: “I was at a hospital the other night where I think there were actually a few coronavirus patients, and I shook hands with everybody, you’ll be pleased to know.”

Then Johnson contracted the disease and by March 27 he was in an intensive care unit looked after by two immigrant nurses – the very people he had campaigned to evict from the UK through Brexit.

Johnson’s case illustrates the contention by historian Michael Beschloss, author of Presidents of War, that it is very difficult “to be a wartime president”.

“Not only are you coming up with a strategy and tactics, but at the same time you have to let Americans know that you know how hard this is for them,” Beschloss told The New York Times last month.

The Trump presidency more than amply illustrates Beschloss’s point. Trump’s shambolic management of the response to the pandemic has been a strategic and tactical disaster. His daily press briefings descended into such a fuss that he sulked and cancelled them after he was derided for moronic “ideas” such as the ingesting of disinfectant to cure Covid-19.

Trump’s actions are a manual on how not to do it. On the other hand, there has been some incredible leadership in this “war”.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen have shone in this hour, as they have followed the science and not the egotistic solutions proposed by the likes of Johnson and Trump.

Thankfully, Ramaphosa has been a steady, calm, inspirational and science-led pair of hands in this crisis. Yet the lesson here is that societies and how they respond win wars – not individual leaders on their own.

Ramaphosa, like Merkel and others, are not messiahs.

If this is a war, then be prepared for a very long haul because our lives are really only getting back to “normal” when there is a vaccine. That is, realistically, sometime next year. Then, we must prepare for SA’s fiscus to take a big hit, because wars are expensive. And prepare for hardship, because wars are terrible things.

And there will also be no hero, no Shane on a white horse anywhere on the horizon, to come and rescue you. Wars just aren’t like that.

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