Clapping the NHS is an empty gesture if we don’t back parties that support our health workers
Mae modd darllen yr erthygl yma yn Gymraeg yma.
The lockdown due to to the coronavirus pandemic is a difficult time, and it’s natural to feel helpless. The only thing most of us can do to help in the battle against COVID-19 is to stay at home, and give our best wishes to the NHS staff on the front lines. There is a sincere desire to demonstrate this appreciation publicly, which is what many people do at 8 o’clock on Thursday evenings by going out to their front doorsteps to clap and cheer.
I tend to feel awkward about this sort of mass ritual (and this is perhaps one reason that religion never appealed to me). Despite the good intentions behind it, an element of social enforcement tends to develop: if you don’t take part, you must hate nurses. An element of performance often takes over quite quickly too, as the clapping becomes bashing saucepans, then fireworks, and even sky lanterns (which are dreadful things that should be banned outright), turning the whole thing into a competition to see who cares about health workers the most.
In case anyone thinks I’m being unkind and miserable, this is not to say that people shouldn’t clap. It should be noted that many health workers genuinely appreciate the display, and anything that lifts their spirits at the moment is a good thing. It’s also true that an opportunity for the public to come together to convey a positive message is beneficial, and offers a brief escape from the lonely monotony of self-isolation. People are longing for something to celebrate. But it’s surreal to see people breaking the guidelines about social distancing in order to take part.
The scenes from Westminster Bridge in central London last Thursday were incredible, especially as it was the police themselves that instigated the spectacle by gathering on the bridge in their vehicles to blare their sirens and lights. Some police officers have had too much of a taste for their new powers, and there are many examples where they have been too zealous in their policing of people exercising or shopping, but this was the other extreme.
Public gatherings of only 2, some of us haven’t seen our parents in weeks, our children not at schools, nearly 14,000 dead as @metpoliceuk allow this madness on Westminster Bridge pic.twitter.com/paLl5N80MS
— Aamer Anwar🎗✊🏽 (@AamerAnwar) April 17, 2020
In the name of applauding NHS staff who are risking their lives treating COVID-19 patients, the police created a scene that was bound to attract a large crowd, thereby almost surely further spreading the very virus responsible for this nightmare in the first place. It’s a mixed message to say the least. The intentions may have been good, but this clearly needs to stop immediately.
The bigger problem is that “supporting health workers” is too vague and general a message. Is there anyone anywhere willing to admit that they don’t appreciate the work of NHS staff? Even those politicians itching to privatise as much of the service as possible claim to cherish it, even though the whole point of a National Health Service should be that it is maintained by the state.
There is one obvious thing that people can do to help the NHS in a meaningful way, which is to refuse to support political parties that fail to fund it adequately and who insist on introducing more and more market forces into its administration.
Unfortunately, many (a majority, even, according to some recent opinion polls) fail to do this one practical thing to protect the NHS. Sadly, this makes me fear that the clapping is a symbol that means everything to everyone, which is a different way of saying that it doesn’t, in fact, mean much at all. It reminds me of the empty words about “thoughts and prayers” mumbled by too many American politicians after mass shooting cases, which aren’t followed by any meaningful action.
Similarly, the story about the 99-year-old man who raised millions for the NHS by walking in his garden shouldn’t inspire us. The man’s achievement is obviously good and remarkable, but it is nonetheless a heartbreaking and dreadful indictment, because it is disgraceful that a National Health Service should need such charity.
Symbols or rituals that are too vague can be dangerous, because, despite the sincere initial intentions, they can quickly become quite jingoistic affairs, as we’ve seen with the poppy. Indeed, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see this new clapping custom getting absorbed into the annual Remembrance Sunday traditions. It’s easy to imagine attempts to introduce a clap for the police and royal family too. After all, we’ve already seen it done for the Prime Minister when he was in intensive care himself with the coronavirus.
There is something quasi-religious about mass symbols and rituals like these. In the case of the crowd on Westminster Bridge, it’s almost as though they believed that the symbolic nature of the event for which they had gathered actually gave them temporary immunity from the disease. Perhaps they considered it a show of defiance to the virus. Of course, psychological tactics don’t work against inanimate blobs of tiny molecules, which is why Donald Trump’s blustery declarations that the pandemic was a hoax didn’t, in fact, prevent it. PR, political rhetoric and ‘shows of force’ are useless against natural phenomena.
As someone who spent a fortnight in hospital some months ago, I can attest that NHS staff do incredible work and deserve all praise. But we must remember what supporting them means in a practical sense, and we should not let politicians take advantage of this new tradition in order to appear more supportive than they truly are.