‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ May Not Work in a Time of Pandemic

Eighty years after Londoners rallied in the face of the deadly German Blitz, many are flouting the rules aimed at preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus.

By Peter S. Goodman

LONDON — During a recent visit to a private London hospital, I was horrified to encounter a delivery man wheeling in a load of supplies without wearing a face mask. An orderly in blue scrubs stood inside the elevator, three feet from me, with his mask draped around his chin.

The scene at the hospital may present an especially shocking example of the casual way in which many people in London continue to confront a pandemic that has killed more than 57,000 Britons, but it is hardly unusual.

Coronavirus cases are again increasing rapidly, yet shoppers routinely wander the aisles of the supermarket in our North London neighborhood, Hampstead, without wearing masks. Cafes and pubs are full of people hoisting drinks in proximity.

When I asked the proprietor of our local indoor fruit and vegetable market why, despite regulations mandating masks, he was allowing unlimited numbers of people to enter his narrow premises absent protection, he gruffly waved me away. “We’re not the police,” he said.

Every morning, I take my children to school on the public bus, where the 14-passenger limit is routinely breached along with face mask rules. We angle for a spot near an open window.

At our international school, the children must wear masks. But as I walk home through the leafy streets, I see children and parents chatting jovially without masks as they await the opening of their school gates. They look like people lining up to board the Titanic.

Beyond the obvious ways that this cavalier behavior is disconcerting, it has enhanced a widely shared sense that Britain — famously rule-abiding — is now operating without adult supervision. Public confidence has plummeted, with more than half of respondents in a recent survey declaring the government has botched its handling of the pandemic, up from 39 percent in May.

The modern Britain that we learn about in history lessons supposedly displayed its truest character during World War II, when Winston Churchill exhorted the nation to persevere in the face of the Blitz, the relentless German bombing campaign. People pulled together and endured in a collective effort whose inconveniences and indignities were borne as the cost of defeating the enemy.

“The government issued thirty-five million gas masks to civilians, who carried them to work and church, and kept them at their bedsides,” writes Erik Larson in his history of the Blitz, “The Splendid and the Vile.” “Strict blackout rules so darkened the streets of the city that it became nearly impossible to recognize a visitor at a train station after dark.”

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