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‘Death,” wrote Saul Bellow in his 1975 novel Humboldt’s Gift, “is the dark backing a mirror needs if we are to see anything.” But what if the image the glass reflects is too painful, too glaring to scrutinise? Today, for example – almost exactly one year since the first day of lockdown – there are more than 145,000 reasons why we might find ourselves bowing our heads and turning away.
The sheer scale of the UK’s pandemic death toll has left journalists groping for metaphors. A tsunami, a war zone, Armageddon, Covid’s killing fields. Even a palliative care doctor like me has seen, since March 2020, enough death and dying to last a lifetime. The conveyor-belt quality to the losses – all this compressed mortality – invites disbelief. Neither numbers nor words seem up to the job. Unprecedented. Indescribable. Unimaginable. The past year exists as a blankness, too huge or too painful for our hearts to grasp.
In the NHS, of course, we have not had the luxury of flinching. We’ve seen – in the starkest and most visceral terms – precisely what the virus, for its victims, entails. The blue lips, the glazed eyes, the shuddering chests, the flickering pulses. Whether we like it or not, we’ve borne witness. A tragedy – vivid, immediate – has unfolded before our eyes, one bed after another. And the deaths, for all their horror, only scratch the surface of the suffering. For each life claimed, psychologists know that, typically, another eight or nine people are left profoundly grieving. In a pandemic, that grief can be cruelly compounded by additional losses: of the comfort and ritual of public funerals, of even the chance to be present at your loved one’s deathbed.
Then there are the wider deprivations: loneliness, job losses, financial insecurities, children’s battered educations. It is easy, amid the grieving families, rising poverty and shadow pandemic of mental illness, for the country to feel like a landscape of ruins. Everyone has lost something.
Oddly though, for all the trauma, I find myself buoyed by hope. Perhaps odder still, I’ve come to believe this is because of – not despite – being immersed in darkness. Hope just now may feel like a tall order. As the end of lockdown draws tantalisingly near, the country’s emotions are turbulent: relief, anxiety, excitement, mistrust, yearning, trepidation. But hope? We were here before, last summer, and look how brutally our hopes were dashed by Christmas. Surely only a fool or blind optimist would risk going out on a limb a second time?
Hope is a leap of faith. It requires the willingness to act on the conviction that, for all the bleak facts of the present, a better future is possible. Hope is neither easy nor platitudinous. The opposite of wishful thinking, it entails the hard psychological work of confronting the world as it is – unvarnished, without illusions – and still finding cause to lift your head and feel your heart swell.
On paper, the past year could not have been worse. When the virus derailed life as we knew it, we degenerated briefly into a people who brawled over toilet rolls in supermarkets. For all the lofty political rhetoric, we were never “all in it together”. Covid, we learned rapidly, as with so many illnesses, hit ethnic minorities and deprived communities disproportionately hard. Your risks of dying hinged on affluence, employment type and skin colour – and continue to do so. It didn’t have to be like this, as we now know. The 145,000 Covid deaths were not predestined. Had the government not failed – repeatedly – on PPE, on test and trace, on the courage to lock down promptly, the UK’s death toll need not have been world-beating. Even imposing the first lockdown one week earlier could have saved 20,000 lives.
But for all the maddening, shocking, tedious, relentless events of last year – which at times felt as though they might have broken me – Covid unleashed a grassroots revolution. A calm, resourceful, altruistic and imaginative response to disaster that was as dazzling as it was undeniable. There were the neighbourhood support groups, the shopping trips for those shielding, the rainbows, the online choirs, the millions given to charity. Suddenly, everywhere, in the face of calamity, people acted impulsively, out of love and on principle, to help each other.
Even as Covid forced us apart, we resolved to get to work, together. As Rebecca Solnit puts it: “Every now and then, the possibilities explode. In these moments of rupture, people find themselves members of a ‘we’ that did not until then exist, at least not as an entity with agency and identity and potency; new possibilities suddenly emerge, or that old dream of a just society re-emerges and – at least for a little while – shines.” And this, like the miseries, is undeniable.
Inside the hospital, it’s been just the same. Strength, courage and compassion have abounded. The deaths have mounted but I have been surrounded by ordinary people carrying on, doing their best, struggling, stumbling, falling, getting up, gritting their teeth, falling again. Not heroes, not angels. Just you and me. Just everyday, banal, astounding humanity.
It turns out, in this month of piercing anniversaries, that your heart can be both crushed by sadness and hopeful. A few days ago, I received my second dose of the Pfizer vaccine. There it was again, in an east Oxford health centre. Society’s glue, the best of ourselves, in the form of tiny acts of kindness. I saw it in the volunteers corralling the masked and eager patients. In the GP who’d donated her Saturday to inject her local community. In the administrator from the Oxford University Press who’d offered for free her formidable skills to document today’s vaccination data. In the mound of pizzas purchased by the doctors to say thank you to their cheerfully toiling team.
Four hundred years ago, John Donne asked: “What if this present were the world’s last night?” Have the grimness and fear of the past year not provided an answer? Have we not learned that when darkness falls what erupts is the impulse to care for each other? I do not know how this is going to end. But I do know – because the pandemic has taught me – that people, by and large, are reliably, tenaciously and remarkably good.
Rachel Clarke’s most recent book is Breathtaking: Inside the NHS in a Time of Pandemic
Source: The Guardian
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