When I first heard of the COVID-19 crisis described as this generation’s “World War II moment,” I was intimidated. The stories of sacrifice and heroism from that era are larger than life. Soldiers risked life and limb to liberate allied cities and rescue fallen comrades. Prisoners of War endured torture and isolation without breaking. On the home-front, women stepped up and kept the factories going that fed our wartime machine. We’re talking big things that I can’t imagine doing.
Are you one of the lucky ones who has heard your parents or grandparents talk about that time? Mine didn’t talk much about it, but I remember helping clean out my grandmother’s garage after we moved her to an apartment. I found a box full of metal hook and eye clasps that she had clipped off of old bras.
At first, I chuckled – she was what we lovingly called frugal. It didn’t take long to realize, though, it was a habit formed in wartime. One of the calls to action was to save scrap metal to support our military manufacturing efforts, and every little bit mattered. It made the stories of sacrifice real – everyone pitched in back then.
Fast-forward to today. In the US, we have grown accustomed to complex customized coffee orders, information curated to our specific point of view, and the near-instant gratification of nearly everything one’s heart might desire at the click of button. For a long time, the “me” has been more important than the “we.”
Enter the novel coronavirus pandemic. The undercurrents of wartime get stronger every day – rationing at the grocery store, invocation of the Defense Production Act, appreciation of our “frontline heroes” – but this time we are fighting an invisible enemy. Historically, Americans react well in times of crisis. We come together to clear debris, cook meals, champion causes and signal unity by with rubber bracelets… We donate blood, goods, and money. I’m always proud to be an American when I see how we rise up and care for one another in crisis.
True to form, everyone I talk to wants to do something; to take action. It feels inadequate, almost unsettling, then, that what we can do is more about not doing. We need to not gather in groups, not go out, not expose others. We need to tamp down our anxiety and not buy large volumes of what we fear we’ll run out of. We are a nation that prefers action in tangible form, and we are being told to stay home.
This “call to action” felt weak compared to the WWII calls for families to grow their own vegetables, women to only purchase what they needed and surrender excess ration coupons, and everyone to repair clothing instead of buying new. To sacrifice was to be patriotic.
This time, the “patriotic acts” are small: cough into your elbow, wash your hands, and practice social distancing.
I was struggling to feel the patriotism in it until I thought of my triplet pregnancy. Chances were very high the babies would be born premature, have health issues, or that we might even lose one, two, or all three of them. “High risk pregnancy” took on new meaning, and I wanted to do everything possible to ensure a good outcome.