Coronavirus: Why war makes countries more resilient to COVID-19

Omar Al-Ubaydli
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Many draw inspiration from German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s maxim “what does not kill me makes me stronger.”

Taking this as a barometer, there is a correlation between those countries devastated by past wars, and the fewer numbers of COVID-19 cases they find during the global pandemic.


The causes of the wide international variation in COVID-19 deaths are highly complex, and they include demographic composition, population density, quality of public administration, economic strength, and many other factors.

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A recently published research paper by World Bank economist Michael Lokshin and colleagues argues that part of the story is the societal resilience engendered by devastation in World War 2.

Pummeled during the war, Eastern Europe, supports Lokshin argument, and taking Estonia and Poland as examples, both countries fared relatively well in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to Lokshin’s numbers Poland lost slightly over 1,700 people from every10,000 in 1939 as the Second War started.

It shows a clear negative relationship with high WW2 deaths linked to low COVID-19 deaths.

COVID-19 and WW2 losses adjusted for population in a selection of countries (Lokshin et al. (2021))
COVID-19 and WW2 losses adjusted for population in a selection of countries (Lokshin et al. (2021))

In the case of Vietnam and the Vietnam War (1965-1974), the figures are starker, with approximately 300 out of every 10,000 Vietnamese dying during the conflict. The cumulative first-wave of COVID-19 deaths were less than one person per million in the country.

With lots of research indicating that exposure to war drives prosocial behavior, people are more likely to join political and community groups: their mindset shifts toward societal cooperation. Based on the experiences of countries including, Nepal, Sierra Leone, Tajikistan, Uganda, and others it reflects that when people experience, and survive deep crises such as wars, they are more willing to make the long-term investments that protect them from future crises.

Formal statistical analysis conducted by Dr. Lokshin confirms this.

People’s propensity to cooperate with one another is clearly a valuable asset for any country looking to tackle COVID-19, especially in the domain of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs). Countries have differed dramatically in important countermeasures such as complying with stay-at-home orders, wearing masks, and adhering to social distancing guidelines.

A medical staff covers with a blanket the body of a 35-year-old woman infected with COVID-19, at the intensive care unit of the Rafik Hariri University Hospital in Beirut, Lebanon. (File photo: AP)
A medical staff covers with a blanket the body of a 35-year-old woman infected with COVID-19, at the intensive care unit of the Rafik Hariri University Hospital in Beirut, Lebanon. (File photo: AP)

Perhaps the ultimate illustration of this, is Japan. Successful in confronting many post-WW2 crises, and most recently the Fukushima reactor explosion in 2011, and the COVID-19 pandemic today, it is the only country in the world to have been on the receiving end of a nuclear bomb. The country is ranked 136th in the world in Covid-19 cases per capita

Further evidence offered by countries during the later waves of the COVID-19 pandemic, includes the UK. Despite widespread COVID-19 fatigue, almost 80 percent of the public supported a second lockdown at the start of 2021, having seen the devastation wrought by the pandemic during 2020.

This phenomenon might explain the disdain that many baby boomers tend to express toward millennials. Those born in the wake of WWII endured several further decades of war and social tumult, including the mentally draining pan-global conflict that was the Cold War. They accuse those born from the mid-1980s on of being entitled, and unwilling to make sacrifices. Anecdotally, some boomers attribute this to the relative serenity that millennials have experienced in their lifetimes, but, of course, the events of the last couple of years might change this perception.

While the research linking WW2 suffering to COVID-19 resilience is not directly actionable, it does open the door for interesting, follow-up research about less costly ways of building social cooperation.

For example, it might be possible for good quality history classes at schools to run as a partial substitute for experiencing a catastrophe first hand.

Multimedia teaching is the norm in the 21st century, and offers teachers a wider array of tools for helping students understand the horrors of the conflicts of yesteryear.

While the emphasis has often been on using these tools to build knowledge and critical thinking skills, perhaps there is also a role for highly visceral teaching methods in building civic-mindedness among the population, and thereby making it better ready for inevitable future catastrophes.

As Abraham Lincoln once quipped: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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