Different Boats

A year ago our awareness of an approaching wave of illness, like the virus itself, grew exponentially. From distant sympathy for the locked-down residents of Wuhan, to our late-March barracking of the population, the shift from normality to deserted streets was swift. Our lives changed fundamentally within days. While these events took place a dizzying pace, perhaps the most surprising element of the restrictions on daily life has been their duration.

Time and again it feels that just as a clear route to exit the crisis has materialised, in short order it has become narrower – or disappeared entirely. Today, as the UK’s highly successful vaccine roll-out continues, the picture on continental Europe has deteriorated. The prospect of much needed holidays in warmer climes is receding. The scientists, epidemiologists and politicians have started to speak once again about the tunnel at the end of the light.

A York Snickleway

As we head towards Easter, at best, it looks like we might have some return to normality within the UK. The opening of schools may have contributed to the levelling off of new cases but it appears that vaccination may be countering any more harmful consequences. Deaths and hospitalisation continue to reduce. The greatest risk is a variant that eludes much of the efficacy of the vaccines. This could undermine all the gains of recent months and put us more-or-less back to square one. It’s not something any of us wishes to contemplate.

“Our health, our economy, the taken-for-granted ease of travel, will all be changed for years to come by what is happening now.”

Spirituality; Connection and; Covid-19, Chris Swift WordPress, 22 March 2020

A year ago I decided to write regular blogs during the pandemic. Starting on 22 March these enabled me to bring some focus and discipline to my thoughts about this unprecedented crisis. At the time I argued that chaplains must bring “renewed energy, vision and invention to the task of preserving spiritual connection”. This has certainly taken shape over the past 12 months with churches and individuals acquiring new and unexpected skills in Zoom, Teams and YouTube. The internet has allowed people to stay in touch and share in some sense of community and unity. Of course, this has not been for everyone and concern about digital poverty and exclusion cannot be ignored. As one church minister shared with me, people on data tariffs are unlikely to use their scarce allowance to watch church services. In some cases personal notes and hand-delivered newsletters have been an important corrective to a digital-default.

Soul Boats suspended in Birmingham Cathedral. Designed by artist Jake Lever.

While the analogy of same storm/different boats may have become overused in the pandemic, it remains a helpful image. Some are aboard state-of-the-art cruisers with an abundance of resources; others are shipping water like there’s no tomorrow, and look likely to sink. The inequalities revealed and widened by a global health crisis cannot be ignored. All this death, illness, isolation and economic decline, cannot be brushed over. The idea that somehow a public inquiry in the UK might be downplayed or delayed is unthinkable. We must get an accurate overview of what is occurring and understand its differential impacts across society. Only then can public policy identify and address injustices that have emerged. Not least we need to understand why the safety of older people in residential care was so distant from scientific and political priorities.

It will take accurate, detailed and impartial analysis to begin to form the questions we need to address as a society. If disability and age are acceptable criteria to impose a ‘do not resuscitate’ (DNR) order, then let us say this is what we are doing, and debate it. A year ago it felt that – politically speaking – an invisible ‘do not bother’ order was hanging on the front door of the nation’s care homes. The lessons available for us to learn from have been bought at huge cost. Let’s not squander what they can tell us, or ignore how they can help us steer with clarity to a form of society we are proud to name and fearless to promote.

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