Aled Edwards, Wales’ Former Commissioner for Racial Equality
Around the pivotal point when Wales marked the staggering loss of over a thousand of its own people due to COVID-19, the different approaches to the lockdown between the Celtic nations and the UK Government became more real.
Over twenty years too late, sections of the Westminster focused press and media got around to the simple basics of devolution. They did so having spent weeks, usually through omission, misleading the Welsh public about key pandemic matters such as: volunteering, meals for children, replacing exams and the reopening of schools.
Having been confronted with difference, some responded with contempt: for our communities, our institutions and our leaders. No First Minister should ever be described lazily by journalists as the ‘Welsh chap.’ The venom injected on social media was as if none of us had died.
Pandemics have no national identity but nations and communities may view the devastation they cause through the prism of their own storytelling.
My community of Cilfynydd in Rhondda Cynon Taff is familiar with grief. The 1894 Albion Colliery explosion which killed 290 men and boys has faded in the memory of a community. It’s said that 350 children lost their fathers that June afternoon. These days, fuelled by poverty, my local authority has experienced one of the highest COVID-19 infection rates anywhere in the UK. The virus has taken more Welsh lives in a few deadly weeks than the combined slaughter experienced over a lifetime by the mining disasters of Cilfynydd, Senghenydd and nearby Aberfan. That’s the scale of the dying. Expendability should not become the hallmark of our generation.
In terms of responding to catastrophes, the space created by devolution has enabled Welsh civic society to relate to government ministers and officials in a way that was unimaginable twenty years ago. Following the ‘9/11′ New York terrorist attack, Rhodri Morgan brought faith communities together in a formal partnership. That arrangement has grown into the current Welsh Government’s Faith Communities Forum which meets twice a year or more often if required. The dynamics around the Forum have enabled Wales to celebrate great achievements. They have also enabled us, through national ceremonies, to grieve in our own distinctive and inclusive way.
These relational dynamics have enabled Wales to respond more effectively to global tragedies of human suffering. Significantly, from within the aspiration of making Wales a Nation of Sanctuary, the Wales Asylum Seeker and Refugee Doctors (WARD) Group, originally established in 2002, currently provides the UK with some 80 GMC registered doctors.
Bridge-building has been a feature of the dynamic. Recently, to the backdrop of considerable acrimony in English cities over relationships and sexuality education, members of the Faith Communities Forum brought people with contrasting convictions together in a Cardiff mosque for conversations with Wales’ Minister for Education, Kirsty Williams. The ability to hold such conversations has taken twenty years to craft.
It’s these relationships that have been brought into play in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the outset, working alongside the Deputy First Minister, Jane Hutt, faith communities strove to ensure that places of worship observed the lockdown. Throughout, considerable emphasis has been placed on tracking possible community tensions.
The way Wales has penned its own distinctive rules around end of life practices and funerals have been informed by faith communities and minority groups. The recently formed COVID-19 Moral and Ethical Guidance for Wales Advisory Group has also offered core values to inform planning and decision making for health care delivery. The collaborative way in which groups have worked has ensured that due regard has been paid to the needs of Welsh speakers in official guidance.
Grappling sometimes with personal loss, members of the Welsh Government’s Race Forum reflected on the devastation coronavirus has inflicted on black and ethnic minority communities. Experts from different fields have now been summoned to consider the possible medical and socio-economic reasons behind the losses. Significantly, on the eve of the National Assembly becoming the Senedd, the Welsh Government enabled over 90 community leaders to share their thoughts and to question officials.
Far from Westminster’s current political ethos, Wales has already set about the task of reshaping a post-pandemic future. Defiant seeds have been sown in the ground of our politics. Beyond policies aimed at protecting ourselves, Wales has dared to poke a political stick at the global order that has perpetuated human expendability with such deadly effect on the poor. The Welsh Government has refused to give bailout cash to firms based in tax havens.
We owe those we have lost many things. We should not dull our critical minds. The seeds of our own sovereign decision making must also be allowed to grow. Above all, when contempt is thrown at our loss, we must resolve not to suffer it.