Last night, for the second Thursday in a row, hundreds of thousands of people in the UK leaned out of their doors and windows at 8pm to applaud the medical staff and other key workers combatting Covid-19.
It was the first time I had heard clapping and cheering for this initiative in our part of town. Although I saw many reports from friends in London and other regions saying how moved they had been to see their neighbourhoods united in expressing their appreciation for the vital work of nurses, doctors and other medical staff, last week east Folkestone stayed quiet.
Yesterday, however, possibly reflecting the fact that Britain’s most popular newspaper, The Sun, has thrown its weight behind the movement, there was audible clapping, cheering and whooping in the streets around my house.
I didn’t join in. This is not because I disagree with the sentiment behind #Clapforcarers. Quite the opposite. Having grown up in a medical household, I have always been keenly aware of the sacrifices doctors make in normal times, let alone in the midst of a pandemic. We are lucky to have them.
I have also, for as long as I can remember, known how fortunate the UK is to have the National Health Service (NHS), a publicly funded healthcare system through which treatment is free at the point of need. In theory at least, everyone in this country has access to life-saving treatment without the fear that it could ruin them financially. That’s hugely valuable.
Indeed, one of the good things I hope may come out of this crisis is a renewed appreciation of the preciousness of the NHS and a fresh commitment to defend it from the creeping privatisation that has been threatening to destroy it for years.
Still, I did not join my neighbours in clapping. This was for a few reasons. Some them have to do with personal feelings about my own family situation. But it’s also because of an unease I’m having trouble shaking about this undoubtedly well-meant initiative.
I’ve always been suspicious of orchestrated, mass expressions of sentiment. This is because they often flatten and simplify complex issues and, if we’re not careful, risk masking some of the more problematic elements of the difficulties we humans face.
In the case of Clap for carers, I think there’s a danger of glorifying the inadequacies of the protection and support our health workers are getting. At the moment, huge numbers of nurses and doctors are obliged to do their work without access to testing and without appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Some have even been forced to use homemade visors and rely on donations of face masks from the construction industry. While we might very much want to applaud these people and the work they do, we surely don’t want to cheer the way society is failing them (a failing that also affects other key workers, as I described witnessing in an earlier post).
I’m clearly not the only one to have felt this: a politically engaged friend informed me that last night was meant to be about applauding but also demanding better for our NHS staff and other key workers. There was even a chant that people were supposed to shout demanding proper equipment. In east Folkestone, however, I heard only clapping, whoops and cheers.
Don’t get me wrong: I can see the good initiatives like this are doing. I can see the way they promote fellow feeling and teach children – many of whom have made rainbow posters like the one above, which is up in a house a few streets away – about the importance of the caring professions. And I’m sure many medical workers, bin collectors and supermarket staff will have felt galvanised and enthused by this show of support.
Still, I hope that when those who were out clapping went back into their homes, they didn’t allow the euphoria of the moment to make them forget that much of the heroism we are demanding of our key workers is unnecessary: if the proper PPE were in place, there would be no need for many of these people to expose themselves to such appalling levels of risk that we see daily tributes to medical staff who have died as a result of the disease they are working to treat.
Yesterday, during the daily government briefing, Health Secretary Matt Hancock called the Covid-19 pandemic a ‘war in which all of humanity is on the same side’.
At the moment, we are sending our troops into battle dressed in protective equipment better suited to a heavy-duty session of washing up. I find that hard to applaud.