My column last month was a bit of a jeremiad, a litany of woes and dire predictions. I wrote not just to express my mood but to acknowledge that many of us are feeling discouraged and impatient and just plain bored. And that’s okay. We can use those frustrations as resolve to do the hard things we need to do to end this pandemic.
I was also expressing these sentiments to one of my partners, a friend and fellow ER doc whom I have worked with for over twenty years. He seemed concerned at my unusual pessimism. The next day I found a book in my office that he had left for me.
The book is called The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson. It is an account of Winston Churchill’s first year in office as the Prime Minister of England, spanning May 1940 to May 1941. In that remarkable year England faced a series of hardships that vastly dwarf anything we are going through now.
The British Expeditionary Force had been routed in France by Nazi Germany in May 1940. Several hundred thousand men were trapped in a pocket around the French port of Dunkirk and were about to be annihilated by German tanks and artillery and aircraft. An evacuation across the English Channel was planned but it was designed to save only 45,000 men due to the difficulty of getting enough transports and all while being strafed by the Luftwaffe, the German Air Force.
In the end 338,000 Allied soldiers successfully made it across the Channel to England in a fleet of primarily privately owned small boats manned oftentimes by British civilian volunteers. This is how a great nation faces widespread danger. Everyone works together for the common good and most are willing to face the danger on the front lines to save their fellow countrymen.
While this unexpected salvation was being celebrated by the British public as a “miracle,” Churchill famously reminded the public that wars are not won by evacuations. He did not hesitate to call it a “colossal military disaster.” He then went on to vow never to surrender, to fight any invaders, to the very end. This is how great leaders communicate in a widespread crisis; with honesty, gravity and inspiration.
No sooner had Britain recovered from this disaster when the “Blitz” began, a constant nighttime aerial bombardment of London and other major cities by the Luftwaffe. For 57 consecutive nights the bombs rained down. Air raid sirens would wail and then the explosions and fires would begin. Some sheltered in subway tunnels but most stayed in their houses and rode it out. In all 2 million London homes were destroyed and casualties were around 180,000. It has been described as 57 consecutive 9/11’s.
And yet through it all Britain stayed strong. Morale was high and productivity soared. United against a common enemy everyone pitched in. Those who survived the night walked to work through the newest rubble and just kept going. In fact, they picked up the rubble, shipped it into the countryside and used it to make runways for new airfields to fight back from. Much of this resilience came from Churchill’s example. He visited most of the bombed sites, mourned with the population, and showed unflagging courage and optimism wherever he went. And the people loved him for it. He was universally popular even during the nation’s darkest trials.
Well we know how the story ends. Britain endured five years of brutal war. Eventually America buckled up and saved the world. I think we can do it again.
So, many thanks to my partner Bill for this timely gift of the book and the perspective it lends to our current troubles. There is a way out of this. Gifted leadership will be required along with public resolve to endure some hardship in the service of the collective health and well-being of our fellow citizens.
As Churchill once said, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing—after they’ve tried everything else.”
I think we have tried everything else.
P.S. Get your flu shot in September or October! Let’s not make things worse with a bad flu season as well.