How to Battle the Coronavirus and Win: A Historians’ RoundtableHistorians in the News
tags: historians, coronavirus
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- To many of us living through this age of mass lockdowns, the coronavirus pandemic feels like a break from the past — something entirely unprecedented. But historians know there’s nothing new under the sun. That’s why historian and Bloomberg Opinion columnist Stephen Mihm recently gathered a panel of scholars to discuss history’s lessons for the coronavirus pandemic, with a particular focus on what can be learned from wars and other mass mobilizations. Business and military historian Mark Wilson (University of North Carolina at Charlotte), economist Mark Harrison (University of Warwick), and political scientist Rosella Cappella Zielinski (Boston University) share their thoughts below.
SM: Many people have likened the battle against the pandemic to a wartime effort. How has the United States mobilized to fight wars in the past, and what does it tell us about how to handle the current crisis?
MW: In World War II, the United States pursued several strategies. For the goods that could be made relatively quickly and easily, it was enough to expand existing production lines of expert manufacturers and then supplement them by having these products simultaneously produced by rival firms, using special low-cost licensing deals. This was done in the United States for B-17 bomber production as well as for smaller items.
For things that are going to take longer and may still be needed some months from now — ventilators come to mind — it could be worth looking into more radical “conversions,” with companies doing serious retooling of existing production lines. This is of course one of the best-remembered World War II methods, with refrigerator manufacturers turning to machine-gun production, for example.
Even more important in the United States, and perhaps worth considering today, was the model of having the government pay for and own entirely new factories, which typically were run by expert private firms. Those took months to build, obviously, but they made sense because there was a strong possibility that they would be needed when they were finished: a facility capable of mass-producing vaccines, for example.
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