Watching the nationwide tributes to Britain’s National Health Service, with people banging pans and clapping in the street, I was taken back to Danny Boyle’s eulogy to the NHS in the opening ceremony to the 2012 Olympic Games.
Some people felt that it was awkwardly timed, as it coincided with the Conservative-led coalition government sacking 50,000 doctors, nurses and other staff as part of its austerity programme.
The Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, certainly thought so and tried to remove the NHS segment and have the 1,600 volunteers, mostly dressed as Victorian nurses, just walk round the stadium instead. Thankfully, Boyle stood his ground and created a brilliantly chaotic pageant, aptly described as “a love letter to Britain.” Even the Queen was recruited as a Bond girl.
The positive response of ordinary people to the desperate condition in which they find themselves at the moment is in sharp contrast with the negative impact of the press and broadcast journalists who question the government’s strategy at every turn.
One doesn’t expect a paper like the Guardian, for example, to give Boris Johnson much support, having long ago dismissed him as a jester and a liar, but its vituperative personal references to the Prime Minister in the midst of this crisis have made this ancient journalist seethe with a sense of unfairness and professional shame.
Likewise with the BBC and Channel 4: any chance to suggest that the government is making a mess of things or that it has been peddling lies and evasions is seized on with undisguised relish. If only the media could help to illuminate the crisis for the public, rather than constantly playing the blame game.
The persistent gripe that Prince Charles jumped the queue, for example, in getting himself tested for coronavirus was ridiculous: he is the heir to the throne, for heaven’s sake, which must still count for something – and he did have the virus after all. Will poor Boris be attacked now for having a test?
Of course, we can see in retrospect that nearly all governments around the world failed to prepare for a pandemic, despite numerous warnings. The governments of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May can be held to account for the country’s unpreparedness in terms of hospital beds, vaccines, ventilators, testing kits and personal protection gear.
Boris Johnson can hardly be included in this group, since he has only had a Parliamentary majority for three months and has clearly done everything in his power to make good the deficiencies. His Chancellor, the impressive Rishi Sunak, had been in office for barely a month when he introduced the biggest spending programme since the war.
Perhaps the lockdown could have been a bit earlier and prosecuted more firmly: parks and playgrounds could have been shut and underground trains better organised, and our borders could have been closed to flights from areas badly hit by the disease. And I still can’t see why construction work shouldn’t be stopped for at least three weeks.
Nonetheless, it seems to me - and, I would say, to any fair-minded person - that the government has acted with as much resolution and good sense as it possible to have in a situation where nobody really knows – including the medical experts - what is going on and how long it is going to last. Just imagine if Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn had been in Downing Street at this time.
All western governments find it virtually impossible to plan effectively for medium to long-term global problems such as climate change, poverty, hunger and disease. The political cycle forces them to concentrate instead on the immediate domestic issues that can get them re-elected (or not) within four or five years. This is a crucial weakness of modern democratic systems.
As Bill Gates, who forecast a global pandemic in 2015, has pointed out, one good thing about isolation is that it forces you to think about what really matters in life. Can this period of enforced idleness be converted into something positive? My wife, like most mothers, would challenge the word “idleness”, since the problems of shopping, cooking caring for children and getting them to do online lessons in these conditions can be highly stressful.
But it remains true that isolation provides a time to think outside the normal parameters of daily life. It reminds us, for example, that a global disease affects us all equally. It doesn’t matter how rich or famous you are or how clever you think you are. It reminds us forcefully of the shortness of human life.
This makes us keenly aware of how important our health is – and the risks we take with it in the processing of food and the chemical treatment of water. We listen more carefully to the arguments of those who argue that the earth is sick and that the way mankind conducts itself is destroying the planet.
We realise the importance of home and family life. We see that the luxuries for which people yearn are really pointless. We learn that patience is a greater virtue than panic.
Above all, we learn that we are all connected, that what affects one person has an effect on others - a reminder of John Donne’s famous line that “no man is an island, entire unto itself.” If we want a stable and better world, we learn that it cannot be built on the poverty and slavery of others, but by helping and protecting those with less than ourselves.
History shows that life goes in cycles and that this particularly nasty cycle will eventually come to an end. How soon it ends will determine how much permanent damage it has caused. It is vital to work out how it started and how to stop it happening again.
But one hopes that isn’t all. Will this just be an end to one disaster, with the same mistakes being made again and again? Or will the fresh understanding it should bring about the realities of human existence lead to a correction in our thinking and the beginnings of a new wisdom?
Experience says not, but hope dreams on.
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