The end of the beginning for Covid – lessons from Churchill

This year’s situation over Covid puts me in mind of a speech Winston Churchill gave on 10 November 1942, after the second Battle of El Alamein. This decisively defeated a German-Italian Army in the field of battle; and by early November the Axis force was fleeing west, pursued by Lieutenant-General Sir Bernard Freyberg’s Second New Zealand Division.

It was the first real victory Britain had experienced in a war that, by then, had been running just over three years. And yet, as Churchill put it on 10 November in a brief address to the Lord Mayor’s Luncheon: ‘…this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.’

These were wonderfully lyrical words that summed up the essence of that victory. For all that he was – a writer, historian, politician, unreformed colonialist, drunken sot, Edwardian-style glutton and all the rest, Churchill was also a master of oratory.

Winston Churchill in 1942. Wikimedia Commons, public domain. Library of Congress, Reproduction number LC-USW33-019093-C

Which brings me to Covid. As I write this the pandemic has been under way for two years and is entering its third. Some of the papers I’ve read – such as this one in The Lancet  – suggest that the pandemic is far from over: that other and worse variants will emerge. However, it also suggests that the Omicron wave currently flooding the world will likely be the last requiring extensive government intervention, because of the scale of vaccination and other factors.

Another paper, this time in Nature, suggests that Covid will be a major issue at least until 2025, requiring social distancing, intermittent lockdowns, and ongoing precautions. After that it will become endemic, like the seasonal flu.

If the pandemic continues into 2025, it implies we’re as far into it as Britain was into the Second World War by about October 1941. That had been a dark year: at the time, victory in North Africa continued to elude Britain, and the Germans were looking very likely to take Moscow. So can you imagine what would have happened had the British and Commonwealth people risen up, occupied Parliaments and declared that they’d had enough of the war, enough of rationing and all the rest, in October 1941? If they had demanded that all restrictions were lifted?

Without the threat of Britain at his back, Hitler would have likely won the war against the Soviets – if not in the winter of 1941-42, then in the spring campaigning season that followed. That would have made beating the Nazis extremely difficult and, without doubt, opened the door meanwhile for a new dark age of suffering and torment across Europe. There are many possibilities in this counterfactual, but the point is that the Second World War would have been much prolonged, at the very least.

Of course the people of the time didn’t rise up: they grumbled, but they endured it. Today that hasn’t happened – there is a small(ish) but loud undercurrent across the world demanding an end to restrictions. There are many reasons why which I don’t intend exploring here.

I find it quite ironic. Unlike the Second World War, where Britain had to wait more than three years to get the ‘end of the beginning’ moment, the world today has had to wait but two. The Omicron wave is not the end of the Covid pandemic. It is, very likely, not even the beginning of the end. But, if the science papers are correct, it is very likely the end of the beginning. Either way, there is an end in sight. People just have to stick with the constraints for now – avoiding the ‘abyss of a new Dark Age’ until, again to quote Churchill –  ‘the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands’.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2022

6 thoughts on “The end of the beginning for Covid – lessons from Churchill

  1. He was a bit of a bastard, wasn’t he? But boy could he string words together. I’ve always found it rather ironic that both Hitler and Churchill were master orators. As for our modern lack of resilience…hah! Not too long ago, I read Robbie Cheadle’s book ‘When the Bombs Fell’ which is based on the experiences of her Mother, Elsie Hancy Eaton during WW2 in the UK. Robbie’s mother was just a child at the time but what I found fascinating was the way people accepted the rationing of food and other necessities. There have been shortages recently, but nothing like the rationing people had to endure back then. We’ve become…soft. :/

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    1. I think Churchill was the right man at the right time for Britain in 1940 – unquestionably helped orchestrate the decision to remain in the war. He was a historian and well aware of the way tyrannies worked. Still – yeah, his character was complex and multi-faceted. Also awash with alcohol. One story goes that, some time in 1943 he was aboard a destroyer in the Mediterranean. The officer responsible for his food and drink reported to the captain ‘Sir, the Prime Minister has breakfasted on a chicken leg and half a bottle of wine’. Apparently he once visited Moscow where he and Stalin spent an evening drinking – Stalin was actively hoping to get Churchill drunk and willing to spill any secrets. Alas, Churchill drank him under the table… I have the account both in Churchill’s own partly team-written history of WW2, where he confessed to a slight hangover next morning, and in other biographies which are less partisan. Possibly, like certain rock stars, Churchill was one of those people who wasn’t affected too much by drink…

      I agree – I think we are soft by comparison with the mid-century generation. No resilience. Back then there was certainly a lot of discontent at the hardships, but people got on with it because they knew it was going to have an end – eventually. Rationing continued here in NZ until the late 1940s for no better reason than that the government insisted on sending everything to post-war Britain to help support it, for instance. Did that lead to people camping in Parliament grounds wearing tinfoil hats, like NZ has just now? No it did not, although it probably did have something to do with the way the Labour government was voted out in 1949.

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      1. lmao – so Churchill drank /Stalin/ under the table?!? That is so funny. He must have been half pickled all the time.

        I can understand how New Zealanders would not have been terribly happy about continuing to suffer privations just so the Poms could eat but…it was the right thing to do. Sadly, it’s always Labor or progressive governments that do the right thing ethically. Not that they always get it right but, principles, yeah.

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  2. In the US, we often say the generation that fought ww2 was our greatest generation. Arguably, they were all pretty tough, from the housewife working in a munitions factory to the soldier in the field. Perhaps that could be said about the peoples of ALL the allied nations.

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    1. They were the greatest generation! And tough. NZ had them too, as did others. I think a lot of that persisted – but I think of late the world has lost resilience. To an extent we look on past crises with a sense of nostalgia – after all, we know how they ended, whereas our own future is unknown to us and our fears seem all the more real on the back of it. But still – that WW2 generation simply got on with things, knowing the crisis would have an end sooner or later. Plenty of grumbling, sure, but there was also a good deal of resilience and emotional strength across society. And, of course, the motive was clear: a world dominated by the fascist powers – as had been increasingly likely from the mid-1930s – was unthinkable.

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  3. Our government here in Blighty just lifted all restrictions and we are very much back to normal. No face masks, no isolation. Nothing. Johnson hero worships Churchill, too, he’s in his element at the moment. This tragedy in Ukraine has taken all the pressure of his recent (and many) police investigations for breaking the law. Although the Tories have a bit of a long history with Russian oligarchs.

    Away from that, I think a lot of people are clearly just fed up with COVID and have decided it’s not for them. Wearing a mask for a few minutes in a shop is too much effort and/or communism.

    Churchill’s approach to alcohol gets more and more inviting.

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