It’s war... but not as our grandparents knew it

We have, in a nutshell, been cocooned from calamity by both time and space. But as our grandparents once warned us when we were kids: it was only ever a question of luck, at the end of the day. And luck has a rather nasty habit of eventually running out...

One of the advantages of having been born in the 1970s is that I belong to a generation which grew up on second-hand memories of World War II.

Well… I call it an ‘advantage’ today, but I have to confess that I didn’t quite see it that way at the time. More often than not, those wartime anecdotes our grandparents brought us all up on – especially the ones about ‘hunger’, ‘deprivation’, etc. – were really just subtle reminders about how very fortunate our own generation was, not to have had to endure anything similar ourselves.

Looking back, one particular memory stands out: I was having lunch with my grandparents as a small child, and – being, as always, a difficult eater – I disapproved of the presence of so many ‘green things’ (lettuce, marrows, peas, etc.) on my plate. This roused my nannu’s impatience: “You don’t know how lucky you are to have any food on your plate at all… and to have never known the real meaning of hunger. Not like during the war. Let me tell you…”

And out it would all come: the stories about the time spent in air raid shelters, or queuing up for meagre rations at the Victory Kitchen; or the hardships of having to walk all the way to Rabat and back, just to get a jerry-can of kerosene… on her part, my nanna would chip in about the time she was so hungry, she scraped a blob of jelly off the floor and ate it (among countless other variations of the same theme)… and somehow, these anecdotes would all work their way towards the same, inevitable conclusion: ‘Mur giebek fil-gwerra’ (rough translation: ‘just imagine you during wartime…’)

It was roughly the same treatment I got every time I kicked up an excessive fuss after, say, stepping on a sea-urchin at the beach… whereupon the same grandfather would take it upon himself to perform the life-saving operation afterwards (using tweezers and a piece of raw onion). ‘What’s all this fuss you’re making? Don’t you know that, during the war, soldiers had their entire legs sawn off without any anaesthetic? And there you are, howling and blubbering because of a tiny little pin-prick…. Bah! Mur giebek fil-gwerra…!’

(Mind you, my generation got a double whammy of this particular treatment… for I was also a young teenager during the Ethiopian famine that inspired 1985’s Live Aid concert. This time round, the admonition would take the form of: ‘You don’t know how lucky you are to have any food on your plate at all: just think of all the millions of children starving in Africa right now…’)

Either way, the sentiment is generally correct: until now, at any rate. For it’s perfectly true that most of us who are alive today – not just my own generation, but, the preceding and following ones - don’t ever really contemplate how incredibly lucky we all are, to have lived so long in this bad, wicked world… without ever having directly experienced just how ‘bad’ and ‘wicked’ it really is.

Unlike our grandparents’ generation, we never lived directly through a war ourselves… and while we have witnessed no shortage of serious crises in the wider world – from earthquakes, to tsunamis, to famine, to pestilence and beyond – it has so far always been from a safe distance: and even then, cushioned by the buffer-zone of a television screen… which somehow makes the phenomenon appear less immediately ‘real’.

We have, in a nutshell, been cocooned from calamity by both time and space. But as our grandparents once warned us when we were kids: it was only ever a question of luck, at the end of the day. And luck has a rather nasty habit of eventually running out...

These, at any rate, were the gloomy thoughts that invaded my mind when I read the news this morning: i.e., that Malta has just recorded its first cases of local transmission of the COVID-19 virus… which suggests that a nationwide epidemic is now unavoidable.

As such, I must admit that our luck seems to have finally run out. It remains to be seen whether this crisis will indeed escalate to anything comparable to the experience of World War II… and much depends on how we actually respond to it, in the little time we now have left.

But undeniably, we are on the brink of a major test of our national survival capabilities: not just because of the devastation this disease is likely to cause in purely medical terms – but also because of an impending economic crisis that threatens to be unlike any other we may have previously experienced.

This also means that – like our forefathers - we have to brace ourselves to experience trauma and loss: possibly on a scale that we have never really imagined before.

But while this may sound overly pessimistic: well, it’s also the reason why I now feel privileged to have been brought up on all those anecdotes about life during wartime.

For remembering all those stories (and the circumstances under which they were told to me) also reinforces the point that… well, Malta survived the hardships it had to endure under enemy bombardment 80 years ago: without, it must be said, even complaining too loudly about it afterwards.

And I think it’s worth remembering, too, that the generation in question was also a good deal less fortunate than us for a host of other reasons… including a few that we nowadays tend to take for granted.

For starters, they lacked all the information technology tools we have at our disposal today (as well as, during the Blackout, the electricity to use them.) This also means that ‘social isolation’ – or even full-blown quarantine, as is likely to soon the case - should be less daunting to our generation, than it must have been to people who whose only course of action was to gather underground and pray in the dark.

And besides: there is a very significant difference between the war we’re fighting now, and the one we lived through 80 years ago. Back then, the enemy was (for simplicity’s sake) a foreign ideology… and while we generally tend to play the romantic card when discussing Malta’s wartime history – focusing mostly on the ‘spirit of gallantry’ than earned our forefathers the George Cross, and all that – we tend to forget that WW2 divided our nation, just as much as (in other ways) it brought us all together.

Inevitably, these divisions were also politicised at the time. Without going into too much detail: people suspected to harbour pro-Fascist sympathies – mostly Nationalists – were interned, and several members of the Nationalist Party executive (and not only) were deported to Uganda for the duration of the war.

These experiences, too, added to the battle-scars that have disfigured our country’s political landscape ever since: the Interdett, the violence of the 1980s, and all other manifestations of a deeply-ingrained political animosity that can still be felt today: simmering beneath the surface at all levels, and all times.

Well, COVID-19 is an altogether different type of enemy. It doesn’t infect its victims on the basis of their political and/or ideological beliefs; in fact, it doesn’t indulge any kind of discrimination whatsoever.

On paper, then, we are all facing a common enemy: which should ideally call for a common, united front. Naturally, I am not naïve enough to believe that this virus may at least have this one, beneficial effect – i.e., that of somehow bridging our inherent divisions, at least for long enough to withstand the invasion… but that, nonetheless, is clearly what the situation now calls for.

And lastly: unlike any traditional war against a human opponent – and also unlike any previous time in human history – we now benefit from enough detailed scientific knowledge of our enemy, to at least come up with a coherent, strategic plan of action. We are not exactly ‘defenceless’ against this onslaught; on the contrary, we are armed to the teeth with all the expert medical advice we need to collectively mitigate against a worst-case scenario (which, at this stage, is the best outcome we can realistically hope for).

Ok, at this point I shall have to admit all this was really just a preamble to what is, at the end of the day, just another warning about the importance of paying heed to all the advice and instructions of the Maltese health authorities (another thing we are lucky to be able to rely on, that previous generations lacked).

And this, alone, should harden our resolve to face the COVID-19 crisis with everything we’ve got. After all, our grandparents had none of the above-mentioned advantages… and they still managed to sock it to the Nazis (and sock to them good and proper, if my nannu said so himself).

And what… we’re now going to allow ourselves to be defeated by a measly little microscopic virus, of all bleeding things?

No, no… I would never survive the shame of it. So have at you, coronavirus! If it’s war you want… it’s war you’ll bloody well get…

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