The amount of wartime terminology brandished about since the outbreak of COVID-19 is extraordinary! Donald Trump has refashioned himself as a “wartime president”; Boris Johnson told Britons that we were all “directly enlisted”; Xi Jinping vowed to wage a “people’s war” on the coronavirus. In fact, most of the world’s leaders have got onboard with invoking wartime imagery. The metaphors continue in the press and social media, even the word “furlough” is a military term for a ‘leave of absence’. But why choose to frame this pandemic in military terms? And is it even helpful?
The use of the wartime analogies is probably an instinctive reaction to the situation. Despite being an imperfect parallel these historical events are the only comparison we have and perhaps we can learn something from the comparison.
So, all things considered, here is your whistle stop history tour of recruitment during times of national crises.
Recruitment, in some form or another, is as old as the beginning of organisations. But in the distant past recruiting nearly always had a military focus and big drives came at times of national emergency. One of the first examples of professional listings is from Roman Britain, shortly after the Boudicca uprising. The 2000 year old Bloomberg tablets were uncovered during archaeological investigations in the financial district of London. They include the CVs of over a 100 professional soldiers and traders working at the time and testify to how quickly London recovered and started hiring again after it had been razed to the ground!
Jumping ahead in time now to consider the biggest pandemic in recorded history- the bubonic plague. Thanks to international trading routes this outbreak ripped through Europe beginning in 1348, killing off a third of the global population. Subsequent restrictions of movement and trade had many asking was the cure worse than the disease. Sound familiar?
The Black Death turned society upside down. The shortage in workforce, as a result of the disease, allowed labourers to demand higher wages and expect better placements. Documentary evidence highlights a skill shortage too, with new recruits noted as being of a lesser quality. Henry Knighton, writing in Leicester at the time, said that many new clerks were illiterate, no better than laymen – ‘for even if they could read, they did not understand’. In contrast to medieval society, thankfully our medical and recruitment professionals are of a different calibre these days!
Our next stop is the Georgian era, where between 1803 and 1815 there was a mobilization of the population on a scale not previously attempted in Britain. The motivation was once again a response to a threat but this time the threat was Napoleon and his empirical ambition. Large numbers of men were enlisted for a series of conflicts with the French, known as the Napoleonic wars. The problem came during periods of non-action when those who had been recruited had very little to do. A job creation program was established to occupy idle soldiers, to keep them in employment and out of trouble. Many were put to work on anti-invasion preparations- constructing fortifications such as, the Martello Towers recognisable today across the Kent and Sussex coast.
Conceivably, the lesson learnt here, is that the reallocation of workers during times of stress can help avoid labour shortages for vital roles and huge unemployment in other sectors.
Fastforward to reflect on the last time the world faced a pandemic on this scale, we find ourselves in the middle of an actual war. Spanish flu appeared in 1918 during the waning months of World War I and quickly spread around the world, killing tens of millions of people. There was a desperate attempt to redeploy nursing staff from the front line to support the hospital systems back home in Britain. Nurses were advised to wear lint masks to protect themselves whilst caring for others but the sad fact is, like today, many medical professionals fell victim to the virus they were treating.
The recruitment industry was officially born out of World War 2, the last national crisis we will consider on our chronological timeline. Employment agencies came about when entrepreneurs noticed the workplace gaps that resulted from the call for men to join the war effort. “All hands on deck” were needed in these years and the workforce became increasingly more diverse. Women’s professional sports leagues were formed so that the public could maintain at least a semblance of normality . Comparable to the computer simulated grand national that was staged this April, after the actual race was cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic. It is surprising the amount of non-essential but morale-lifting businesses that endure times of hardship!
Who knows what will be born out of our present predicament? New industries? A more eclectic workforce? A different way of working entirely? Maybe wartime metaphors are helpful in communicating the gravity of this public-health crisis and history can help us learn lessons from the past but if curbing the spread of the coronavirus is akin to being “at war,” then it is unlike any war the world has ever fought.