If our fight against COVID-19 is like a war, then right now may seem a lot like the late summer of 1944 in World War II Europe.
That’s the feeling I got earlier this week when I heard Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky state that she had a sense of “impending doom” about our coronavirus fight — not because we’re failing but rather because we’ve been doing well lately (although numbers have begun to inch up again nationally). She fears that the growing confidence Americans feel as vaccinations step up and the weather warms is creating a recklessness that could undercut our efforts and lead to a fourth COVID wave filled with more infections, hospitalizations, deaths, misery and demoralization.
“Right now, I’m scared,” she admitted.
While some of us may be put off by this blunt grimness, I find the tone oddly hopeful. It tells me health officials aren’t taking anything for granted. Give me that kind of talk over rosy COVID observations such as “like a miracle, it will disappear” any day. In a way, the former tone reflects how you win a war, while the latter is how you do not.
So, if this is a war, perhaps we’re about where the World War II allies were in Europe entering the final months of 1944.
At that point, the allies were coming off the successful D-Day invasion of Normandy in June that brought them roaring back into France. Weeks later, Paris was liberated and German forces were staggering back toward their fatherland.
As author Rick Atkinson noted in his book, “The Guns at Last Light” — the final entry in his splendid “liberation trilogy” about the European liberation during World War II — many allied leaders, as well as so many war-weary civilians, were intoxicated with optimism that the war in Europe was nearing an end. There was a growing, infectious belief that matters could be settled — and perhaps the soldiers would even be home — by Christmas, if not sooner. So confident were some military chiefs that they didn’t bother to requisition enough items such as parkas and boots for a winter campaign they figured wouldn’t come. And they were so eager to push into Germany that the allied supply lines became long, tenuous and vulnerable.
But then things happened. September brought the failure of Operation Market Garden, an allied campaign to establish a bridgehead over the Rhine River that would allow troops to swarm into northern Germany. In December, the Germans launched a desperate surprise offensive — the Battle of the Bulge — that nearly broke the allied front lines. The U.S. alone ultimately saw more than 19,000 soldiers killed in this fighting; the German toll was not as high, but those soldiers simply could not be replaced.
In early October 1944, the Press & Dakotan acknowledged the wilting war hopes, noting that “there is less talk about victory in October and more of a possibility of a winter in the trenches. … It is not belittling one of the greatest military operations in history to say that the lightning liberation of France started this country on a binge of optimism which affected The Pentagon in Washington as well as Main Street.
“Now, some of our eager preparations for (victory in Europe) look a little foolish,” the P&D remarked. “And the persisting feeling that ‘it’s about over, so hurry up and give us gas, tires and top sirloin’ is more than foolish.”
Of course, the allies went on to finally finish the job the following spring, but it came many months and many thousands of lives after those hopeful days of late summer and early fall had faded away ...
So, are we now in roughly the same position against COVID-19? Have we become so confident in our momentum that we’re carelessly leaving ourselves open to another deadly wave — a COVID “bulge” — that could produce more sorrow and pain?
That’s what Walensky fears, and President Joe Biden seems to agree. Their message this week was urgent and clear: This isn’t the time to relax, no matter how badly we wish we could.
Back in World War II, the experiences of late 1944 weren’t forgotten. Several years ago, I went through microfilmed copies of the London Times from the spring of 1945; about a week before Germany’s surrender in May of that year, the UK newspaper ran advertisements in which, for example, an image of a man who looked a lot like British Prime Minister Winston Churchill cautioned readers, “Not just yet.” After more than five years of devastating war, the message reminded, it still wasn’t time for the Brits to let their guard down, even though Germany was crumbling before their eyes.
Which brings us back to the COVID pandemic and the apparent endgame before us. So far, we’ve shown the determination to fiercely fight this fight despite critics, conspiracy mongers, anti-vaxxers and the rest. We can now see the end — perhaps just as the allies believed they saw the end as autumn arrived in 1944.
But this spring, in this particular war, we can’t let up or let down. I know how dearly we want to proclaim victory and be done with it, but the cost of declaring too much too soon could still be disastrous.
Follow @kelly_hertz on Twitter.