THEN is the Blitz, the Nazi bombing campaign that pummeled London and other English cities during Winston Churchill’s first year as Prime Minister–and the subject of Erik Larson’s riveting new book, The Splendid and the Vile. NOW is Covid-19, the pandemic that’s circling the globe in a death mask. It landed in the U.S. in January; to date, our country has the highest number of cases (701,131) and deaths (36,997).
Churchill became Prime Minister on May 10, 1940, the same day Hitler invaded Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. Two weeks later he was orchestrating the seemingly impossible evacuation of troops from Dunkirk–with much help from civilian Brits with boats. The Blitz officially began on September 4, and by the time it was over the following May, the bombings had killed 45,000 Britons (30,000 of them Londoners), destroyed two million homes and a third of London. The war was far from over, but the Brits were able to continue fighting and to win–with some much needed help from the United States. Churchill’s speeches from that time are legendary. “If words counted,” he declared, “we should win this war.” But it isn’t Churchill’s words alone that thrill. In Larson’s book, Churchill’s private secretary, his cabinet ministers, his youngest daughter Mary, his wife Clementine, his daughter-in-law Pamela, and ordinary British citizens writing in their diaries (part of a Mass Observation project begun shortly before the war) tell the tale of collective heroism amidst tragedy and a country uniting to save itself–and ultimately the larger world.
The epic fight against Covid-19 continues, but even now there are striking similarities and differences between THEN and NOW.
No one had any doubt that the bombers would come. Defense planning began well before the war, though the planners had no specific threat in mind.–from The Splendid and the Vile
“If anything kills over 10 million people in the next few decades, it’s most likely to be a highly infectious virus rather than a war. . .we’ve actually invested very little in a system to stop an epidemic. We’re not ready for the next epidemic.” Bill Gates in a TED Talk, April 2015 [The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently donated $100 million to fight the spread of Covid-19]
OF TOILETS AND TOILET PAPER
On a tour of London’s public air raid shelters, Clementine Churchill was horrified to learn there were very few toilets and recommended that the number of latrines be doubled or tripled. “This is easy,” she said, “because they are mostly buckets.”
Contrast that wartime hardship with the Covid-19 run on toilet paper, which created a fear of running out of toilet paper, which created a shortage. USA Today reported that on a recent afternoon, a man in line to buy a large supply of toilet paper pulled out a gun in self-defense after feeling threatened by another customer.
TRUTH AND HOPE
The speech set a pattern that he would follow throughout the war, offering a sober appraisal of facts, tempered with reason for optimism. “It would be foolish to disguise the gravity of the hour,” Churchill said. “It would be still more foolish to lose heart and courage.” –from The Splendid and the Vile
The governor of New York’s [Andrew Cuomo] morning news conferences have become part of the county’s new daily rhythm. . .First come the facts. In a matter of days, there are no cases, then 30,000 cases, then nearly 45,000 cases in New York State. “That’s a problem,” he says. They are running out of beds and ventilators. He doesn’t shy away from that. “That’s a challenge.” He pauses. “Take a breath,” and when he starts to talk again, it is the revival portion of the meeting. There are moving stories about New York, his mother, his father, and all of humanity. . .He is talking to New York but the whole country is listening. –Sarah Ellison and Ben Terris reporting in The Washington Post on March 30, 2020
THE EXACERBATION OF MENTAL ILLNESS AND EVERYDAY ANXIETY
On Friday, March 28 , writer Virginia Woolf, her depression worsened by the destruction of her house in Bloomsbury and her subsequent house, composed a note to her husband Leonard and left it for him at their country house in East Sussex. “Dearest, I feel certain that I’m going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of these terrible times and I shan’t recover this time. . .So I am doing what seems the best thing to do.” [She walked into the nearby river and drowned.] –from The Splendid and the Vile
Nearly everyone I know has been thrust in varying degrees into grief, panic, hopelessness and paralyzing fear. If you say, “I’m so terrified I can barely sleep,” people may reply, “What sensible person isn’t?” –Andrew Solomon, a professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University Medical Center (who’s struggled with depression and anxiety for most of his adult life) writing for the New York Times, April 10, 2020
“Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.” Winston Churchill, in a speech, recounted in The Splendid and the Vile
For many New Yorkers, the time of coronavirus will be defined by two sounds. One is the ambulance siren, shrieking at all hours through deserted streets. The other is its opposite: the nightly 7 o’clock cheer for front-line workers.–Andy Newman, writing for the New York Times, April 10, 2020