Wartime Innovation and Its Cousin, The Pandemic


Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.

War is the cause of countless atrocities. However, it also gives way to huge advances in technology. The reality of lockdown has been compared by many to wartime Britain in the way our freedoms have had to be restricted, lives have been lost and overall, how life has been put on pause. But might there also be a parallel when it comes to technological advancement? I think so. While a tragedy, we should look at the pandemic as an opportunity for development, possibly creating a better future.

If we use World War II as an example, huge leaps forward were made. The first production planes with pressurised cabins dropped bombs, and jet fighters eventually shot them from the sky. Later the same technology was used in passenger planes. Radar navigation was also developed to end lives from the sky. The same breakthrough in the accuracy of radar systems is what paved the way for the microwave oven. The impetus to begin mass distribution of penicillin (discovered in 1928) was for Allied troops in 1944. The first computer, using Boolean logic developed almost a century before, was used to decode German messages. The technology that flattened Hiroshima and Nagasaki led to the development of arguably the best source of power we have in the modern day.

All these technologies have a bloody past. The lives lost were not worth the comfort we experience today, but it is done, and it is undeniable that war at least accelerated the coming of modern society and the technology that forms it.

Among the tragedies of history that war dominates, instances of disease and natural disaster also stick out for the panic they caused as humanity came to terms with its lack of control. While war has—whether transferable from the science of killing or not—always seen effective technological growth, I think one look at a medieval plague doctor’s suit is enough to show you that pandemics haven’t always had such an effect. However, the COVID-19 outbreak has resulted in an increase in the development of medical and communications technology, let alone the economic experiments it has triggered.

Aside from the obvious progress of developing a vaccine, other new methods have been devised to fight the spread of the disease. Scientists at Merck have been using AI for the early stages of testing and adjusting new drugs to combat the virus. Sewage testing to map the spread of the virus is a new and promising method, opening up possibilities for use in the future. As the pandemic continues and the dust gradually clears, it is easy to envisage that more new medicines and methods will have been discovered directly as a result of the pandemic.

The real noticeable advancement already is in how we communicate. Now some may argue that the technology of Zoom and Microsoft Teams already existed before the entry of COVID-19, meaning the pandemic has not effected change in this area. However, like penicillin or jet engines, it is the widespread use of the new technology as an integral part of life that is the real transformation. The use of large-scale video calls and demand on Internet connectivity has accelerated 5G roll-out plans, made companies optimise their services, and seen a change in the way many people work that looks like it may be a lot more permanent than originally planned. The appearance and culture of office work may have changed permanently, hopefully for the better, possibly for the worse.

Looking away from technology for a moment, COVID-19 has led to hardship that has triggered huge economic actions from governments with as yet unknown outcomes. Just as it can be argued that it took a world war to create cradle-to-grave welfare, I would also argue it has taken a pandemic to test the closest thing to Universal Basic Income the British government has ever attempted, in the form of the furlough scheme. Just like in war, desperate times call for desperate measures, and sometimes they work.

While looking for silver linings is of no consolation to many people feeling the pain of prematurely lost loved ones, economic hardship and uncertain futures, I see it as still beneficial to look for some comfort in the positive innovations that may be hurried into existence or transferred across different fields and industries to make the post-COVID-19 world a better place. The virus has certainly churned up the battlefield, let’s hope a poppy will grow from it.




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