Before Covid-19, the last time so many British people were held in confinement for an unknown length of time was during World War II: these were the more than 170,000 British prisoners of war (PoWs) captured by the Germans and Italians between 1940 and 1945.
They were detained in prison camps for up to five years. Housed in cramped conditions with meagre rations, these men found themselves far from loved ones and the comforts of home.
What these men went through is in many ways incomparable to our enforced confinement today. But there are significant parallels that we can learn from during our more comfortable, and briefer, period of constraints.
Get the latest on coronavirus. Sign up to the Daily Brief for news, explainers, how-tos, opinion and more.
Lessons from our fighting forefathers provide us with inspiration, comfort and hope. The good news is that our emotions and behaviours to date have been normal reactions to an abnormal world. The bad news is that the longer it continues, the more our mental health will suffer.
Soldiers fighting during World War II never contemplated capture. They thought they would come home unscathed or anticipated death. It was an unexpected and unpleasant surprise for PoWs to find themselves incarcerated in prison camps. The worst part was not knowing how long they would be held for or whether they would survive.
There are similarities to our predicament. We never expected Covid-19. Only a few weeks ago a national lockdown was inconceivable. The uncertainties associated with not knowing how long the crisis will last – or if we will live – are deeply unsettling.
Historian Dr Clare Makepeace analysed the diaries of British PoWs, written during their confinement. She reveals they are remarkably free of despair or animosity towards their captors. They are also uninterested in recording details of daring escapes.
Instead, a different picture emerges: routine boredom, unerring hope that their incarceration would soon end, a boundless use of creativity to get them through each day to keep them sane, and irritation with their fellow captives. These same descriptions in diaries of yesteryear are found on practically every social media feed today.
“The good news is that our emotions and behaviours to date have been normal reactions to an abnormal world. The bad news is that the longer it continues, the more our mental health will suffer.”
Just like us, there was a sense of optimism that their captivity would be over in a matter of weeks rather than years. In 1941, PoWs thought the Nazis would be defeated in months. In April 2020, many people think Covid-19 will be conquered in weeks. Both they, and us, cling to any hope that our nemesis will be defeated quicker than it can be.
Zoom or Houseparty help us connect with relatives, while the PoWs had to rely on the occasional letter or parcel. But, just like them, it still takes acts of imagination to feel what it is like to touch or smell our more distant family members. The cruellest deprivation of all is the inability to hug our loved ones.
In our current lockdown, we can relate to the daily struggle of having to be in continuous close proximity with other human beings for long periods of time. Snores, sniffs, talking loudly and a hundred other habits and mannerisms would grate prisoners nerves. Things that in normal life would be unnoticed became fixations of frustration and resentment.
The longer-term picture for us will also likely follow theirs. During their time incarcerated, the mental health of many PoWs suffered. Although they couldn’t settle on a single phrase, popular terms included “going Stalag happy”, having “barbed wire disease” or “Kriegy weariness”.
The causes were claustrophobia, the inability to get away from others and the monotony of imprisonment. The symptoms included depression, irritability, lethargy, poor concentration, fits of temper, and memory loss. These could come on suddenly, last days, and were experienced anything from once a week to every two months. On occasion it would result in suicide.
For many today these symptoms might already sound familiar.
We haven’t invented our term for “going Covidcrazy”. However, like the PoWs who eventually returned to the ordinary world after their release, we too will need support to ease us back into “normal” life again.
The government must start planning now for the coming wave of mental health issues, otherwise we risk opening up a new front in the battle to reduce coronavirus suffering in the long term.
We can’t compare what we are going through to what wartime PoWs suffered. That would belittle their years of deprivation.
Yet, our plight, while evidently easier than theirs, does draw many parallels. Some we can learn from, some we can gain hope from and some we must beware of, and act upon, for a better future.
Richard Stokoe lectures at the University of South Wales on planning for disasters and civil contingencies and on strategic leadership. Joanna Bourke is an author and professor of history at Birkbeck.