Time to Honor a New Version of ‘the Few’

By George O’Brien

There have been more than a few references to World War II during the COVID-19 crisis, and with good reason. Actually, several reasons.

Like that war itself, the fight against the virus is a truly global conflict with a number of ‘fronts,’ if you will, and all kinds of references to the ‘front lines’ of this pandemic. But there’s more, including everything from comparisons to life on the so-called home front to the need to create another “arsenal of democracy,” as Franklin Roosevelt called the effort to produce everything that was needed to properly fight that global war.

Here’s one more, and it’s certainly poignant. It was almost 80 years ago (Aug. 20, 1940 was the specific date) when Winston Churchill uttered those famous words, “never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

He was referring, of course, to the pilots of the Royal Air Force (RAF), who were, in many ways, all that stood between England and capitulation to Germany. Churchill’s remarks, often quoted and misquoted over the ensuring decades, have been etched onto everything from statues to refrigerator magnets (I know, because I have one — a magnet, not a statue).

And those pilots came to known simply — and famously — as ‘the few.’

We recall, or should recall, Churchill, his words, and those pilots, because in the face of the COVID-19 crisis, there is a new ‘few.’ They are the healthcare workers on those aforementioned front lines of this crisis. There are far more of them than there were RAF pilots in 1940, to be sure, but the analogy works.

And so do Churchill’s words. Perhaps never have so many owed so much to so few.

Indeed, there’s a reason why people in Spain, Italy, and now some parts of this country can be seen on those videos making their way around the internet, opening their apartment windows and the front doors to their homes and clapping for the people who are not just fighting to save lives, but risking their own lives in the process.

There are many emerging heroes in this COVID-19 fight — from those who donate food to the hungry to those who bring some form of companionship to those shuttered inside; from the governors fighting for ventilators to the parents simply trying to help educate their children at home.

But the real heroes are the first responders and those at the hospitals, nursing homes, triage centers, testing operations, and emergency rooms. They’re risking their own health to care for those in need. And they’re doing it, in many cases, without the needed equipment, during long shifts, and at a time when many providers are actually asking them to take pay cuts as those facilities suffer steep losses in revenue.

And this is just the beginning of the crisis.

There’s been a temptation in the past to perhaps take this country’s — and this region’s — healthcare services and providers for granted. They have always been there for us when we’ve needed them. If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything — and it will teach us a lot before this is over — it’s that we should never take these men and women for granted.

For many reasons, we should be clapping, hanging signs of thanks and encouragement, and bringing hot meals to these people every day, not just during a pandemic.

As we continue to draw both parallels to and inspiration from World War II, it’s time to put a fresh spin on perhaps the most famous speech of the war.

Our healthcare workers are now the ‘few,’ and all of us owe them all a great deal.

George O’Brien is the editor of HCN.