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It was 1916, and Joseph Flavelle – the chairman of the wartime Imperial Munitions Board – had freshly returned from what author N.F. Dreisziger described in Mobilization for Total War: The Canadian, American and British Experience as a “traumatic introduction to the realities of total war” when he took a meeting with a group of Toronto munitions manufacturers. There, they told him that they were concerned about their profit margins.

“Profits!” Mr. Flavelle reportedly exclaimed. “I have come straight from the seat of a nation where they are sweating blood to win this war, and I stand before you stripped of many ideas. Profits! Send profits to the hell where they belong.”

In wartime, when the existential fight against a common enemy leaves not a single facet of life untouched, matters like profit margins become frivolous concerns. The important thing, first and foremost, is to survive. All of the rest can be figured out later.

What’s happening now is a world war of a different kind – one where the enemy is invisible and the front lines are in hospitals, not in the trenches in Europe.

Much of what makes the COVID-19 pandemic so frightening is that it feels completely without precedent. And in many ways, it is: few people alive today can recall what it’s like to watch a single illness rob the world of normalcy so quickly and without reprieve. In a matter of months, then an accelerated few weeks, COVID-19 has totally upended billions of peoples’ lives.

But there is a strange comfort in thinking of the current pandemic as another type of war, which is a concept many of us already know and largely understand. War is something we’ve done before. We can conceive of what it might take to get through it.

War begins without an end date. We hope for weeks, plan for months, but recognize the effects could last for many years or more. We take on new jobs – not quite as foreign as they were to women in factories after men went off to the front lines, but new jobs all the same. Parents working from home become teachers and daycare workers. Grocery-store cashiers are suddenly essential-service workers. Hospital custodians and administrative staff are the people behind the front lines as doctors and nurses fight their ways through the trenches. And those are just the workers who get to keep their jobs. A cataclysmic number will not.

Workers wearing protective face masks build a coronavirus intensive-care field unit inside a former indoor sports centre at San Raffaele Hospital on March 16, 2020 in Milan, Italy.Emanuele Cremaschi/Getty Images

Production changes during times of war. Chrysler made tanks and fuselages during the Second World War. General Motors made firearms, planes and trucks. In this war, car manufacturers are being asked – by the British government, and others – to make essential health-care equipment, including ventilators, to deal with the burgeoning crisis. The Canadian government has similarly made a public call for vital health-care products and services.

People on the home front, meanwhile, pitch in however they can. In the 1940s, women scrapped their old cookware and saved their oil, fat and bones to contribute to the war effort. Now, people are contributing to open-source projects to tackle medical-supply problems, and even 3D-printing replacement valves to keep ventilators in hospitals operational.

The economic costs of it all are impossible to predict, but we know they will be astronomical. Social assistance is being rolled out to the abruptly unemployed who would otherwise struggle to keep themselves clothed, fed and housed. Industry bailouts are inevitable. The debt will be enormous. But this is war, and so, we do what we can to survive.

For now, governments across the globe will keep trying to vanquish this common enemy. Many, including Canada’s, will consider adopting legislation for emergency powers as they lock down their borders and try to control the flow of misinformation. Stores will ration hoarded supplies. People will do what they can to help out their neighbours. Parents will try to find the right words not to scare their children.

Perhaps when this is all over, which certainly can’t come soon enough, many of the lessons we’ve learned of physical war will resonate again, changing the way we prepare for these battles in the future. These lessons are of peacetime preparations, of understanding our enemy, of procuring necessary supplies and of bracing for the absolute worst. They are about finding the right balance between stoking fear and provoking action.

Until then, and as the war rages on, our focus must simply be on finding our way to the other side. To borrow a phrase from a munitions-board chairman from a century ago: Everything else – Canada’s debt, the looming bailouts, industry profits and so on – can go to hell, where they belong.

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