The speeches intended to sound victory drums over the 75th VE celebrations in Britain on Friday sounded distinctly hollow. VE (Victory in Europe) Day marked the anniversary of the surrender of Germany to the Allied forces on May 8, 1945.
The Queen addressed Britain at the same time to the hour as her father King George VI did 75 years back. The linkage between that battle against the Nazis and this one against a virus was made emphatically, as it is by British leaders day after day. That this is the biggest crisis to have hit Britain since World War II, and that the country will come through victorious now as it did then.
That World War II victory was, of course, among the most important ever for having ended an advance of institutionalised fascism that had threatened to very nearly take over the world. Adolf Hitler is now a metaphor for everything that the decent and humane collectively fight. The story of the Allied victory carried many myths and hid many facts, as stories told by war victors do. Millions starved to death in India because food was diverted into a declared war effort. The bombing of Dresden in Germany was not unlike what Hitler did. All that got hidden away beneath triumphant flags.
That victory is now invoked to inspire the battle against coronavirus. It’s a particularly dubious invocation.
As matters stand, Britain has the highest number of deaths from the virus in all of Europe, and its World War II ally, the United States, the largest in the world, by far. This viral new enemy has no doubt descended upon the world. But the extent to which it has hit the US and Britain appears more invited than fated. The evidence is overwhelming now that both those old victorious allies have fought this new battle very badly. So far no country has lost as have these two, and continue to.
Britain delayed its lockdown by weeks while the virus continued to spread. In Europe, Italy earlier didn’t know what hit it, but Britain could see its example – except that it didn’t. The world was going one way, Britain the other under an exhibited nonchalance from government leaders, none more than Prime Minister Boris Johnson, until the virus came to hit him personally.
India had banned flights from the European Union (EU), Turkey and the United Kingdom (UK) on March 18. It shut international flights from March 22. Britain kept its airports open, and still does, with still no screening for arriving passengers. India was quarantining arriving passengers in March. Britain now plans to begin to do that from the end of May.
India is currently reporting about 2,000 dead in a population of 1.2 billion when Britain has recorded close to 32,000 dead in a population of 65 million. Many thousands in Britain have died obviously and also admittedly now as a result of the failure of its government. And who has this failed policy of the British government hit the hardest? The very generation of those VE heroes that the nation has now stood celebrating in word and speech.
It is that generation, now very elderly and frail, that has been confined to care homes where the spreading virus has killed without check. Without, for weeks, even of a count. It was only a couple of weeks back that Britain began to count those dying in care homes among its daily death toll running into many hundreds. A reader remarked over a report on CNN-News18 earlier that it’s a pity the elderly are now just a number. In Britain for a long time, they were not even a number.
Johnson has said he “bitterly regrets” the many deaths in care homes for the elderly, which his ministers admit could have been avoided with more testing. On the day the government was blowing the bugle over a victory in that earlier war, its own policies were killing many who had done their bit to deliver that victory. They had survived Hitler, but couldn’t survive the ways of their own government.
That connection was brought sharply home to the government by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, writing in the Daily Telegraph for which Johnson wrote earlier.
"We have all heard the harrowing stories of the virus spreading through care homes, with families unable to say their last goodbyes,” the new Labour leader wrote. "The crisis in our care homes has gone on for too long, and we must do everything we can to protect our most vulnerable, many of whom protected our country in its darkest hour."
This British government will no doubt be held to account eventually over its lethal mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis. For now it seems enough for a prime minister to say he bitterly regrets thousands of deaths – as a result of the failure of the government he leads – and get on with it. In ways such that this government will now choose.