Is morning coming?

“Good night then: sleep to gather strength for the morning. For the morning will come. Brightly will it shine on the brave and true, kindly upon all who suffer for the cause, glorious upon the tombs of heroes. Thus will shine the dawn.”

Winston Churchill, speech to the French people 21st October 1940
Photo by Rick Medlen:

With these words, Winston Churchill asked the French people to take courage as they faced the prospect of indefinite occupation by the hated forces of Nazi Germany. His words might have been written for our time, facing the oppression of a Covid virus that indefinitely curtails our usual freedoms. The message Churchill writes is the same one governments the world over are giving their people; sit tight, the cavalry are coming.

This of course is predicated upon a fairly major assumption; will the cavalry come? For France, the liberating army did indeed arrive on the Normandy beaches, four long years after their country had been routed. Are we wise to hope, in the same way, that the neutralisation of Covid will be the precursor to renewing our previous freedom?

The underlying logic of the Churchillian promise ‘morning will surely come’ is demonstrated in the second part of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Confronted with the prospect of a vast opposing army, King Theoden of Rohan is counselled to take his people to their stronghold of Helms Deep. Peter Jackson would take creative liberties in his film adaption, presenting this as an act of cowardice. In the original text, the retreat to Helms Deep was clearly understood as the best means to protect the people of Rohan until aid could arrive. In due course, reinforcements do indeed arrive to rescue the besieged Rohirrim, and the advice to seek shelter proves vindicated.

Tolkien however provides a contrast to such tactics in the conclusion of the final novel in the trilogy. As the hobbit Frodo Baggins returns from his adventures to his home in the Shire, he quickly learns that an unpleasant power has seized hold of it. Frodo and his companions quickly realise that no help is coming. The wizard Gandalf only a few pages previously made plain:

‘I am with you at present,’ said Gandalf, ‘but soon I shall not be. I am not coming to the Shire. You must settle its affairs yourselves; that is what you have been trained for. Do you not yet understand? My time is over: it is no longer my task to set things to rights, nor to help folk to do so. And as for you, my dear friends, you will need no help. You are grown up now. Grown indeed very high; among the great you are, and I have no longer any fear at all for any of you.’

As we face the ongoing pandemic, and wonder if morning is coming, many of us are still in the Helms Deep mindset. It is not fun to bunker down, to be isolated and distanced, and to have our freedoms reduced. But we are trusting that the cavalry will come. Whether through mass vaccination, reliable and immediate testing, or treatment that alleviates pressure on the health service, it is thought the immediate cost is worth bearing for the hope that dawn is not far away.

We must however pose a difficult ‘what if?’ question. What if ‘the cavalry’, the conditions or circumstances that will end our indefinite confinement, do not arrive?

This is not to question the reality or severity of COVID. It is to recognise that our current confinement strategy only makes sense if an external force will change the circumstance. The ‘Helms Deep’ strategy was not to stay in Helms Deep forever, any more than the French planned to live resignedly under military occupation with no prospect of liberation.

The Scouring of the Shire is a painful chapter in The Lord of the Rings, and when I first read it I neither liked it nor understood the purpose of it. In Tolkien’s wisdom, he has gifted us a story that is pragmatic about what happens when there are no cavalry to come. There was a cost to scouring the Shire of the evil that had taken root in it, not least in lives lost. But the hobbits weighed the cost against the cost of living under oppression with no prospect of rescue, and determined it was worth fighting.

There would be a cost if we reduced or ended lockdown restrictions and the ‘virus-disabling’ conditions we hoped for were not present. That cost would need to be weighed against the cost of continuing indefinite confinement. The longer lockdown continues, the higher the cost will be to address the damaged mental health of the nation; the greater the intervention that will be required to repair the damage to children’s education. We currently count deaths attributed to Covid. We do not presently count deaths arising from lockdown, whether in missed cancer treatments or (very sadly) in those who took their own life, lacking the support needed to persevere. There is a very real human cost to reducing the capacity for Covid to be transmitted.

There would be a cost if we reduced or ended lockdown restrictions and the ‘virus-disabling’ conditions we hoped for were not present. That cost would need to be weighed against the cost of continuing indefinite confinement.

That is not to say that our current strategy is necessarily wrong. The rapid development and disbursement of the new vaccine is a credit to humanity’s genius and dedication to meet new challenges. If the vaccine is as efficacious as promised, dawn may not be far away, and it is worth this temporary hardship to give the NHS the time needed to achieve the necessary immunity in our population and eliminate the risk of the health service being completely overwhelmed.

But we must also hold firm to our conviction that confinement can only be a voluntary and temporary state of affairs. Humanity is not by nature supposed to be confined, separated from family and community, and deprived of contact with other people. Last year I ventured the thought that there may come a point at which the cost of preventing COVID is higher than the cost of treating COVID. I am persuaded we are rapidly reaching that crucial decision point. We must earnestly hope that the vaccine will enable us to return to something approaching normal life, but must also be prepared to leave confinement whether it succeeds or not.

We must hold firm to our conviction that confinement can only be a voluntary and temporary state of affairs.

For now, it is worth waiting, as King Theoden did in Helms Deep. We will shortly know if the virus will be vanquished on our behalf, or if instead we will need to confront it directly.

One comment

  1. Andrew Evans · February 2, 2021

    The MAY indeed be a time when lockdowns inflict more harm than good and, clearly, the current state of affairs is not sustainable in the long-term for the UK fiscally or socially. However since Covid-19 caused around 2/3 the number of deaths there are from cancer and around 20% of all deaths in 2020 even with lockdowns (and the best estimates suggest we would be looking at 400k Covid deaths for the year without the lockdowns), there would have to be an enormous amount of additional deaths due to other causes to balance that out – and there’s certainly no evidence of that at present (anecdotally the three people I know personally diagnosed with cancer in 2020 are all receiving their treatment on schedule and as normal).

    As to the voluntary nature of the lockdowns they are, certainly, popular, with the majority of the public consistently backing more severe measures than whichever ones the government has in place at the time. As with other areas of community life (e.g. election of a Government) this is not an area where “voluntary” can mean “doing what you want” – because the very nature of lockdowns means that they are ineffective unless everybody joins in. Certain the current lockdowns meet the criteria of voluntary in the same way that anything else enforced by law in a democracy does – they are agreed as a necessary means of protecting our community by the vast majority of the public and elected representatives of all political parties.

    As for those pushing for an end to lockdowns it seems they are largely very privileged people for whom an end to lockdown would mean choosing to go back to a limited selection of social interactions they choose to have not, as it would be for most people, being forced to return to commuting and working in crowded situations with people you don’t know in order to put food on the table. Since the default position of Alison Pearson, Laurence Fox, Toby Young et al has been to argue several times that the virus has run its course and we should all go back to normal – only to return to an average of over 1,000 deaths a day – we should all plan to ignore anything further they have to offer on the topic.


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