Fighting Coronavirus. C’est la Guerre?

The advantages, and perils, of a war mindset when coping with the pandemic.

We associate war with a situation in which we are under attack at a national level, under threat of suffering loss of life. In war, we engage the enemy with determination, and invest huge resources in order to be victorious. You don’t want to come ‘second’ in a war.

I have lectured on the ‘Psychology of Terror’, part of which relates to the psychological/ behavioral consequences of biological and chemical weapons. The psychological effects of COVID-19 are similar.

While nuclear bombs are ‘weapons of mass destruction’, biological weapons are considered ‘weapons of mass disruption.’ This invisible weapon kills few (percentage wise), but can make people very sick, thereby incapacitating people, shutting down societies, and denying access to infected areas.

This virus is like a biological weapon, even if let loose naturally or unintentionally. I can make an ‘informed’ guess as to its source, but knowledge of its source is not necessary when combating the virus.

There is a psychological phenomenon referred to as ‘Fight or flight.’ In nature, most wild animals will prefer to avoid fights. Under threat they prefer to flee. They know that fights usually cause damage to both contenders, and that wounded, even if victorious, they will probably not survive in the wild.

If cornered, or with young, there is a high probability an animal will attack. Many of you will be familiar with the aggression of domestic cats when protecting their young.

So under the intense threat of COVID-19 we must evaluate the option of fleeing. To where? The virus is worldwide. New Zealand is virus free now, and determined to maintain that status, have closed their borders.

The only remaining option is FIGHT. And since the entire population of nations is vulnerable, and their economies decimated, a declaration of ‘war’ on the virus seems logical.

However, apart from the psychology of the pandemic, there is a political dimension. I shall mostly relate to Israel and the U.S. where I am more familiar with the situation, AND where political considerations are dominant in decision making regarding the virus.

The best way to expose the political elements is to compare the juxtaposition of Trump and Netanyahu. As the presidential campaigning season begins for Trump, it was initially in his interest to say the coronavirus was ‘no big deal’, and then ‘under control.’ Trump wanted to show a strong economy before elections, and has pulled more economic benefits out of his hat in the last month than a magician does rabbits.

Conversely, Netanyahu shouted ‘Gevalt’ and stressed the potential existential threat to the people of Israel, even comparing it to the Holocaust. He immediately went into ‘combat mode’, and initiated unique and ‘creative’ emergency measures. He ordered that some courts be closed, even before closing yeshivas.

In Hebrew there is an expression which translates to ‘cheap leadership.’ During wartime, the people must unite behind their leader. Anything less could be considered treason. Wars are good for leaders, at least until they end.

Netanyahu gave almost daily press briefings on TV for weeks on prime time, with no option for questions. May 4 was the first time he was prepared to answer the questions of journalists. Leaders of totalitarian states believe their people have no right to question them.

Similarly Trump, a self-declared ‘war president’, claimed that he makes all the decisions. At press briefings he did allow questions, but often verbally abused journalists who asked uncomfortable questions. He would love to fire them. He must be envious of Turkey’s dictator Erdogan who has bothersome journalists thrown in jail.

Trump then turned his bellicose temper towards China, accusing them of giving only partial information on COVID-19, and in an untimely fashion. Assuming that to be true, what took him so long to complain? He is basically trying to deflect criticism onto others.

Both the U.S. and Israel received information about the virus in November, yet only initiated action two months later. So when the viral ‘attack’ was evident to all at the end of January, it wasn’t exactly a ‘Pearl Harbor.’ If generals only prepared for a war two months after receiving warning, they would be relieved of duty.

Netanyahu adopted anti-terror tactics when he authorized the ISA (Israel Security Agency or Shabak) to track everyone’s cell phones. The idea is to warn someone if they were near a carrier of the virus. People asked what will be done with the information after the pandemic, to which there has been no response.

The ISA is a very trusted organization in Israel, as is its head Nadav Argaman, who was in my platoon in basic training. What bothers people is that Netanyahu gave the tracking order without the proper authority. Even to declare a conventional war, the Israeli PM needs the approval of the Security Cabinet.

Yesterday, the Chief Justice of Israel was hearing Netanyahu’s lawyer defense of the brewing coalition deal. Netanyahu decided that he wants to head an ‘Emergency Government.’

The Chief Justice asked for the definition of  ’emergency’ (knowing full well about the virus), and what would constitute an end to the emergency. The lawyer had no answer. She then asked what special authority the PM had in an ’emergency’ government. Again, no answer was forthcoming. She asked how long this emergency government would last. He responded “six months”, quietly adding ‘with the option of extensions of three months.’ Another High Court judge pointed out that this state of affairs could self-perpetuate for the entire term of the government.

One of these ’emergency’ measures was freezing senior appointments. The Chief Justice asked if it was not auspicious during this emergency to appoint a Chief of Police, for example, as the position has been vacant for a year and a half. The lawyer had no response.

These emergency measures included shutting down places of work, entertainment, and some of the courts, as I mentioned. The Ikea furniture store was reopened before the courts!

Other measures included calling up reservists of the Homeland Command to set up Corona hotels to keep people in isolation. The Commando brigade distribute food to those quarantined (Jewish) areas.

Israel’s Ministry of Defense, which has an extensive established infrastructure for procurement, was largely bypassed due to apparent political considerations. It seems Netanyahu did not want the Defense Minister Bennett at center stage. Instead, Netanyahu exploited the Mossad, which operates directly under the Prime Ministers Office. The Mossad conducted clandestine procurement activities in exotic, and less exotic, locations. Only ’emergency’ measures could justify using probably the most sophisticated Intelligence agency in the world for shopping. (Jokes were abundant of the Mossad bringing ventilators to Israel, with Iranians still attached to them.)

A crisis of this magnitude demands professional leadership. Medical and eclectic Crisis Management teams should be spearheading efforts to deal with the pandemic. Mission Teams should be created to address economic, educational, and social challenges.

Trump wants to shut down his Coronavirus Task Force, along with coronavirus oversight mechanisms. Netanyahu would not fathom the thought of even allowing such a task force to materialize in the first place.

On a more positive note: During World War II, while segregation existed in the U.S., black and white Marines fought shoulder to shoulder. There was no black or white, no Jew or Christian – the war converted them all to Marines. The IDF is recognized as a successful ethnic melting pot.

In Israel, Jewish and Arab medical staff work together, as they always have. The difference now is that the entire population of Israel recognizes the contribution of the Arabs, and understand that Jews and Arabs can and must live together in harmony.

Wars bring diverse people together when they are on the same side. In Israel, we are no strangers to war, and quickly identify threats. Here we understand that the enemy is the virus, and have no latent needs to search for hostile elements.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the U.S. When the dimensions and consequences of the coronavirus became evident, Americans lined up to buy guns. Did they want to shoot the virus if it came to their doorstep?  It was war, they thought, and in war you need a gun. Like ‘All dressed up and nowhere to go’, these people were armed with nobody to shoot.

In Michigan, militias that were armed to the teeth entered government buildings. Did they declare war against the closure, the virus, the government or what? Trump even backed up the armed militias who were looking for some kind of rebellion. (Perhaps a rehash of the 1955 movie ‘Rebel without a Cause?’)

Some belligerent groups in the U.S. had placards with large swastikas, and other anti-Semitic messages. Are the Jews behind this virus, or conspiracy? (Take your pick.)

In China, it seems black people cannot enter malls, as they are deemed responsible for the virus. Chutzpah, is the first thought that pops up in my mind.

Most countries probably have a variation of what in Canada is called the ‘War Measures Act.’ These acts outline the extreme measures which can be taken, and by whom, in wartime. Neither the U.S. nor Israel have enacted formally defined war acts.

Trump and Netanyahu have declared a virtual war, thereby excluding themselves from routine laws and procedures that bind their authority. Yet they act in accordance with no formally defined authority or guidelines, adopting behavior for their self-defined and ever morphing ’emergency.’ There is NO transparency. Netanyahu compares our virus statistics to those of Europe. However, we live in the Middle East, and have the worst statistics in the region. They have turned fake news into a fine art.

My title includes the question in French (as a Canadian I am obliged to throw in something French): ‘Is this war?’ The reader must answer for themselves. My conclusion is that we are not at war, and that the negative side effects of this quasi war far outweigh the benefits, which can still be achieved by other means.

About the Author
Rocky Abramson is the author of two books: 'Mind over Coronavirus' and 'The Combat Psychologist.' He is a Canadian-born organizational psychologist and a combat psychologist in the IDF reserves, having served in elite units as a combat officer. He applies his unique experience to high stress situations. He has engaged in consulting, and conducted an array of workshops, specializing in 'The Psychology of Terror.' Rocky lives in the Jerusalem Hills.
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