Friday, May 1, 2020

Then and Now: World War Two and Coronavirus

Make Do Without
A month ago, it was easy to be a consumer. Today, with restrictions on in-person shopping, and necessary slowdowns in e-commerce warehouses, one reconsiders their purchase before hitting “click to buy”. Is this essential? Do I put someone at risk? Is there someone who need this more than I do?”
In the first week of social distancing orders, canned goods disappeared from shelves; even the potted meat and Vienna Sausages. Later supply disruptions were seen in milk, egg, and meat shelves; these are more labor-intensive to produce. Many grocery stores rationed their in-demand goods: one carton of eggs, two pounds of meat, at the military commissary. No coupon books or point tokens required, but cashiers were counting. Spoiled with a plethora of authentic restaurants, some New Yorkers are struggling to adapt to a new reality of cooking at home. “What if I can’t find (x) ingredient?” Just make do without.  

Neighbors Helping Neighbors
COVID-19 forced a reassessment of what talents and treasures are important. With stay-at-home orders, a health crisis has become a nascent economic crisis. As governments work out stimulus plans, members of the community are emerging with a spirit of volunteerism. These range from dispersing essential information on neighborhood forums, assisting with grocery shopping, and donating facemasks and sanitary supplies.   

Take Care of Yourself
The Bethesda Chevy Chase Rescue Squad was founded 83 years ago in 1937, but is celebrating its 80th Anniversary this year. They humbly refuse to take credit for the wartime years, when the squad was disbanded on account of manpower shortages. Community health leaders provided training and information on self-care for minor health issues. For the first time on a nationwide basis, industrial and personal safety were emphasized. “Tojo like careless worker”, read a poster showing an ambulance in front of a nighttime factory.  With so many doctors deployed overseas, an ounce of prevention was worth a pound of cure. Recently, Baltimore’s mayor, and a Philadelphia surgeon, expressed concern than victims of violent trauma were taking critical care beds away from COVID-19 patients. In normal times, the medical community advised citizens to “call 911 if in doubt”; today, the prevailing advice is to first speak with a doctor over the phone before coming to the hospital.  

Adapt, Improvise, Overcome
Many Americans of the silent generation (born in the 1930s and early ‘40’s) fondly remember their wartime childhoods. While relatives were occasionally killed in action, Americans made sure that children were not left behind. For the first time, quality daycares were established for working mothers. Overseas, childhood was more traumatic in the midst of air raids, interrupted schooling, rural relocation, and genocide. Today, with schools closed, it appears that our situation is more similar to wartime London. Parents, teachers and childhood professionals are adapting with various efforts. A set of “best practices” may emerge soon.

Remember those on the front lines
This current battle is being fought with ventilators, hand sanitizer. But like any war, morale and public civility must be maintained. Moments of appreciation count. Medical professionals are giving their all. Delivery drivers and grocery clerks are busier than ever. New York Police Department and transit workers are falling ill in the line of duty. Medical colleges are graduating early.

Vacation at Home
During WWII, it was assumed that tourism took gasoline, train seats, electricity, and manpower away from the war effort. Florida, even then a vacation destination, had to be careful in advertising tourism in light of the wartime sacrifice. Instead, the Office of Defense Transportation put out a poster reading: “Me travel? Not this summer.” Today, excessive travel is seen as insensitive to the times, and a proven vector for virus transmission. A spring break airplane from Cabo San Lucas, Mexico was singled out as an example. (When did college kids begin chartering airplanes?) In hard-hit touristic counties of the Northeast and Mountain West, local sheriffs are pulling over and questioning motorists with out-of-state license plates.

Food is a Weapon
The farming and food packaging industries were coordinated to either provide a growing percentage of foodstuffs to cafeterias and restaurants in industrial packaging (Sysco and US Foods), and a slightly shrinking percentage as consumer groceries to wholesalers and supermarkets. In the face of COVID-19, inefficiencies in the marketplace led to empty grocery shelves, and the industrial consumers refusing to purchase farmers’ crops, milk, and livestock. Understandably, it is difficult for food producers like Kraft, Nestle and Nabisco to retool towards consumer packaging on a dime; regrettably, restaurant providers like Sysco and US Foods have not asked groceries, governments, and families to consider purchasing industrial-sized packages, and avoid food waste. I have long wondered why major grocery chains have not attempted to break into the foodservice business, or why Sysco and US Foods have not attempted to open wholesale clubs.    

Fresh milk is being dumped into lagoons, crops being plowed over. As much as farmers dislike this waste, they cannot subsidize the transportation costs of unsold goods. The food situation is akin to the Great Depression, when there was no central coordination to bring food from farms to the urban poor. The US Department of Agriculture rectified this waste in the 1940’s; with the abundance of industrial farming, these efforts slipped in the 1950’s; but were restored with the Food Surplus Program in the 1960’s.

Queen Elizabeth II Speaks
During WWII, a young Princess Elizabeth II worked as a military truck driver and mechanic. The Queen of England, now 93, made a rare public address on Britain’s resolve to overcome the coronavirus.   

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