World War II veterans, no strangers to grave threats, find strength and solidarity in a united front against a global coronavirus pandemic that is especially dangerous to people their age. Sergeant Zinaida Korneva, 98, rallies Russian citizens with inspiration from Captain Thomas Moore, a fellow WWII veteran from the United Kingdom.

Captain Tom, as he is affectionately called, launched a campaign to raise funds for the UK’s National Health Service doctors who are treating COVID-19 patients, which the World Health Organisation Director General Tedros Ghebreyesus called an "extraordinary act of solidarity." Zinaida, who was 19 when she joined the Soviet Air Defense forces near Stalingrad as an anti-aircraft gunner, decided that it was her duty to pick up the torch from Captain Moore.

“In 1945 we defeated Fascism together, and today we are coming together again to fight this virus,” she said in a video address to him that commended his efforts to support medical workers.

Sergeant Zinaida Korneva delivers a video message from St. Petersburg, Russia for Captain Tom Moore.

Captain Tom raised money by walking 100 laps around his garden before his 100th birthday. Since Zinaida cannot walk, she asked her family to help her record a series of videos, in which she relates her wartime experiences – from the first months of her combat training in the Russian steppes, to being within a hair of death while fighting in Stalingrad and Ukraine, to jumping for joy in Berlin on the day the Allies’ victory over the Nazis was declared. The combat medals she dons for Victory Day are a testament to her valor.

LEFT: Zinaida Korneva in her World War II uniform. RIGHT: Zinaida Korneva with her great grandson Richard Panov. Photos courtesy Zinaida Korneva family

Setting an example of following through on the UN Secretary-General’s call for “solidarity, unity and hope” in battling COVID-19, Sgt. Korneva refuses to be touted as a hero of any kind. Speaking over Skype with the United Nations Information Centre in Moscow on 9 May – Victory Day in Russia – the veteran insisted that “she was no hero” during WWII when she was “merely” doing her duty to help her country fight a horrific enemy. Likewise, she believes it is only natural for former Allies to now join efforts in helping doctors currently on this battle’s front lines, waging a fight against the destructive virus.

Sergeant Zinaida Korneva and Captain Tom. Cartoon courtesy
Denis Lopatin/Cartooning for Peace Association

Having recorded 16 video stories and several public appeals to support medical workers, Zinaida has raised more than 3 million rubles (close to $41,000), most of which has been donated to the families of the Russian doctors who lost their lives to coronavirus while treating COVID-19 patients. Donations are still coming in.

In one of her most recent videos, Zinaida is looking back to the WWII Allies’ pledge to beat their common enemy.

“British and Russian [veterans] have been taking action to support their doctors. It is now the turn of our third ally, the United States, to give a helping hand to their medical workers, who bear the brunt of this battle,” she said.

Viruses may travel fast, but so do goodwill, strength and the ever-present sense of solidarity that is so important to winning this battle. For these WWII veterans, there is no question that winning the fight against the coronavirus is but a matter of dedication, mutual support, and time. They won the most devastating war of their time – and they are now drawing on that experience to inspire others.