John White: From the Blitz to the virus, reducing risk helps to save lives

Bomb damage in Coventry. Pic, Imperial War Museums.

By John White

My father used to tell a story of helping his dad put out incendiary bombs during the war.

Some had landed in their street, and one had set fire to the old lady’s garden next door.

It was crucial for them to be extinguished, not so much for the fire they caused, but because they were markers for the deadlier high explosive bombs which would follow if they remained lit.

Dad used a stirrup pump to spray water over the flames, and the night their street was hit, they were successful in putting out the fires within minutes, returning the area to a blackout, and so escaping the horror of the main bombing run.

Dad also told us of watching the whole sky light up when the town of Coventry, 25 miles away, was hit.

The German air force later coined a phrase which translated as “Coventrified”. It meant completely destroyed.

As a child, my mother lived a few streets from dad, in a brick terraced house with an outside toilet and back yard.

She told of her dad, keeping pigs in the yard to supplement the wartime rations.

When he butchered one, they would eat well, swapping produce as well as helping feed less fortunate neighbours.

When I was young we would visit, still in the same house, and I would explore their damp cellar which was full of junk, but I was always excited by the big flag they had down against the wall.

It was left over from VE day. 75 years ago, this weekend.

The word ‘Frontline’ has become common parlance as the ‘war’ against the epidemic is waged.

I have never been comfortable with this militaristic language, we can’t and don’t fight a virus, we just deal with it when it arrives.

We will survive it, and when a vaccine is found, or created, we hopefully will be able control the effect and consequence it has on people.

But as the army arrives on Skye to operate a testing station, perhaps the battle terminology is more appropriate and relevant, and as we anxiously await development, and the further losses which will inevitably happen, we must realise that the war is now on our doorstep, no longer is it just happening elsewhere.

The front as such has arrived on Skye, there have been deaths, and, all our thoughts must be with those families and carers most closely affected.

My daughter told me of the first death at the care home just as I was about to leave on the prescription run on my motorbike.

By Earlish I was in tears, tears for the likelihood that this is probably just the beginning, tears of anger at the state we allowed our NHS to get into, and the fact that care home staff were the bottom of the pile until recently, and still so poorly paid, tears at the fact that still, even now, some people are not following guidelines.

I cannot begin to imagine the emotional toll on the care staff who must watch this tragedy unfold and play their part with professionalism and dignity, whilst being human, and my heart goes out to those with loved ones still resident in the home.

I don’t know anything about warfare, but have heard of Sun Tzu, an ancient Chinese general and philosopher, who wrote “The art of war”.

In it is a famous line which is often only partially quoted as “know the enemy”.

The lay person might not fully understand the science of virology and how and why viruses mutate, replicate, take over the cells in our bodies, attack our tissues and cause infection, but by now, most people have a general awareness of what needs to be done to help slow or prevent the spread.

We know our enemy well enough.

Sun Tzu’s quote is actually “If you know your enemy and yourself then you need not fear the outcome of battle”

His crucial advice is to know ourselves during warfare…

Perhaps we should take this opportunity to get to know ourselves, consider our actions and behaviours, and do what we need to do in order to help slow the spread and minimise the tragedy.

There are other vulnerable people on Skye, not just in care homes.

Our friends, relatives and neighbours, many of them are vulnerable.

Now more than ever we need to follow social distancing, wear masks if we are in shops or likely to be near other people.

It is all about reducing risk, a bit like my dad putting out the bomb markers or sticking up blackout paper on the windows all those years ago, doing what they could to save lives, possibly their own.

Considering how many bombs were dropped on Coventry, remarkably few people were killed.

They were ready, many in shelters and many having trekked to safety outside the city, to watch from afar their homes destroyed.

We perhaps could have been more prepared, but hindsight is a wonderful thing.

When it is all over, we can argue and examine the protocols and recommendations, and perhaps hold some decision makers to account, but for now the important thing is to prevent further deaths, and help those helping us.

It is all down to our actions and choice, and our level of integrity.

My thoughts and sympathies are with all the people who have been affected by the recent deaths.