Life’s changed so quickly, it’s been hard to keep track. I’ll admit my initial response was childishly self-centred. Woe is me, my favourite conference is cancelled; I won’t be able to give my talk and sell half a dozen more books. But, soon after, I saw the point when large gatherings were banned (although it was a shame my Wednesday afternoon choir couldn’t do its final concert). Next came concern for the mental well-being of those whose lives were restricted and livelihoods lost.
I totally get staying at home to protect the health service, but it’s easy for me to play my part. Sharing a large house with only one other easy-going person, is a world away from being stuck in a tiny flat with a partner prone to temper tantrums and a crowd of hyperactive kids. Watering an ailing pot plant cannot compare to wandering a garden where I watch birds, bees and butterflies; where I grow fruit, vegetables and wildflowers. While I miss my longer walks in the Peak District, I know that, with fields across the road, I’m luckier than most. An hour’s exercise within walking distance of home isn’t so pleasant in areas where green spaces have been eroded, partly through short-sighted planning decisions that put profit before people.
And now it’s the low-paid workers who are keeping us going: supermarket staff; refuse collectors; delivery men and women on zero-hours contracts. Suddenly, without choice or consultation, they’re on the frontline.
Parallels with wartime are ever present, and often misused, but I can’t help thinking we prepare for war much more successfully than we’ve prepared for this. Because the government should have seen this coming, but they’ve repeatedly done too little too late. Leaving the EU on 31st January took precedence over clubbing together with other European nations to purchase personal protection equipment for staff in health and social care. The Prime Minister’s ego – or at least his public persona as optimistic and upbeat – delayed the decision to put the country into lockdown, despite the lessons from Italy and Spain. Tracking back further, billions have been wasted on missiles that will never be used while stockpiling PPE was vetoed as costing too much.
And now doctors and nurses and staff in care homes are paying the price. Doctors who, while eventually earning a decent salary, begin their careers with massive student-loan debts. Nurses who were denied a pay rise while politicians voted to give theirs a boost. Staff in social care paid a pittance because wiping bums in a manner that preserves the dignity of both parties is deemed less important than managing a hedge fund or owning a football club. Many of these heroic workers come from the vilified European Union or have felt the brunt of racism and the hostile environment to immigration of which this government was once so proud.
Some would argue that this isn’t the time for politics; if not now, when? The NHS has always been political. How we support or don’t support the vulnerable is political. As is how we divide up the common pot.
My American friend Charli Mills is much better than I am at creating literature from emotion while it’s still painful and raw. But this week’s prompt for a 99-word story couldn’t come better for me. While I have a much-loved crazy character – who, along with her “colleagues”, ran amok earlier this week in response to D Avery’s Characters Okay Morale Corral – this is where I needed to go. I’m no poet, but I’m rather proud of this piece:
Out they poured from their houses
Paused on their doorsteps
Ready to proclaim
The ritual way
With their hands.
Primed by the media
The government briefings
The slogans targeted at their hearts,
They knew what was needed,
They’d done it before.
In common cause with their neighbours,
Albeit socially distanced
In their separate booths,
They picked up the pens
They marked their crosses
In the box
For the party that promised
To rid dear Blighty
Of the infection
The scourge of immigration
Of social justice
Of healthcare free at the point of delivery for all.
Excuse the plethora of links in the earlier part of this post; they’re partly here as reminders to me. Do check out the videos if you have time. Click on the images for my other posts on the coronavirus pandemic.