It has been the longest, strangest week that any of us could remember, writes Sunder Katwala. Parents juggle home schooling with Zoom meetings in the week, before discovering how much longer a weekend can feel without social contact and sporting distractions. The need to pop to the chemist or the supermarket, or to walk the dog around the block, becomes a cherished moment of escape. Yet those of us for whom the lockdown is primarily about adjusting to this change of pace are, of course, the lucky ones.
In these extraordinary times, many of us are asked to play a small part in responding to a national emergency in the most ordinary of ways. “Stay at home, Protect the NHS, Save lives” is the key message, upgrading the ability to stay glued to the sofa to a life-saving skill.
That message also reminds us of how shielded we are from the challenges of those on the frontline of this pandemic. It explains why the #clapforourcarers call, for us all to applaud NHS workers and carers, found a response in just about every street in the land last Thursday night – and looks set to become a weekly feature after households across the UK take to their doorsteps and windows again this evening.
There has been another important message of the applause ringing out on Thursday, It is that while this crisis requires us to all maintain strict “physical distancing” from each other, that should not mean losing our social connections with each other.
The #clapforourcarers initiative, a simple act of gratitude, may well have been the biggest, shared national experience since 27 million of us sat down to watch Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympic Games in London. Indeed, the YouGov survey finding that 54% of respondents said they took part, would suggest it may have been bigger still – with as many as 30 million of us taking part in that tribute.
With many of the things that do bring us together cancelled or postponed – from the VE Day march-past to the London Marathon, Euro 2020 and the Olympics – it seems that the urge for common experience and connection among our citizens remains strong, perhaps stronger than before this crisis affected every one of us. We have seen this in the creation of thousands of local groups offering support at neighbourhood level; the efforts to cheer up ids and adults alike, from rainbows and teddy bears in windows to evening ‘distance dancing’ in neighbourhoods; and of course in the huge response to the call for NHS volunteers.
The scenes of the massive new NHS Nightingale Hospital in the Excel Centre in London – and the other field hospitals being prepared at the Birmingham NEC and the Manchester Conference Centre – offer a deeply sombre symbol of the increasingly intense pressures which the NHS is set to face in the coming weeks. This week’s applause must remember too, Dr Amged El-Hawrani, a specialist doctor in Derby and Burton hospitals, whose death was announced at the weekend, after he contracted the Coronavirus from a patient.
Beyond the weekly applause, this year’s birthday of the NHS – on 5th July 2020 – could now be marked as a day of national thanksgiving for the service and indeed sacrifice that will hopefully have brought us through the worst of this crisis.
We will need to invent new lockdown rituals and new traditions, some of which may outlive the COVID-19 virus. Such collective moments show us that there is still such a thing as society and that, while keeping physically apart, we can still come together to celebrate the things that we share – and the organisations and individuals on whom we all depend.