When I started this website back in Lockdown No 1, I did so in innocence and confidence. I thought about missing friends and festivals, the past and the future. I believed then that we were in a temporary 'holding zone', that someone in authority would have the expertise, courage and good judgement to take the steps necessary to manage the spread of coronavirus in the UK, that the world would pull together to tackle this international threat to our physical, psychological and economic well-being, and that - well essentially - that things would quickly get sorted out and we'd all be 'back to normal' before the end of 2020. I imagined a conference I might attend in November 2020, and I imagined myself catching up with my family and friends for the New Year. Today as I write this blog I am angrier, less innocent and less confident, but still hopeful.
So first I wish you and yours a Happy New Year. Congratulations, you and I have made it through 2020 and survived. Many of us have not lost people to COVID-19 although we witness the pitiless ravages of the virus in our communities every day. Many of us have lost loved ones, some to COVID-19, many to other causes. We probably didn't get a chance to be with them at the end, probably couldn't hold their hand and help them leave life behind, and we probably didn't get to bury them according to our usual customs. Much has been lost; few of us have been unscathed.
It's likely that we've also learned skills we have never needed before. But perhaps as 2020 turns into 2021 and the virus persists, mutates and spreads with increased speed, we have also learned even more about inequality. It really doesn't matter much where you look, you can see it everywhere. The longer the COVID-19 pandemic goes on the more inequality I see, and the angrier I get. I feel lucky but furious. I am lucky and I am furious.
Inequality is evident at every level of analysis. At a macro level we can compare the number of people who have died in different nations. At a national level, success, by which I mean very few people catching the virus and even fewer dying from it, seems to be linked to a certain type of leadership. In these cases, the national leadership appears to have been coherent and consistent, heeding and applying scientific advice promptly, willing to sacrifice short term economic loss and financial hardship for the sake of public health. This leadership has been met typically with an engaged, informed, perhaps resigned, but unified response from the public. Many countries in Asia, with previous and fairly recent experience of pandemics, managed the pandemic extremely well and many have almost eliminated the virus, at least for the moment. Other countries, for example, New Zealand and Australia observed and learned quickly from their Asian neighbours, closed their borders, prioritised life over economics, minimised death and illness, eliminated the virus and have now begun to open up their national economies (but not yet their borders). You could argue that these successful countries had clear values which placed the health and well-being of the population above the value they gave to economic growth and success. They acted confidently, inline with their values and have succeeded in saving lives, and minimising suffering and economic pain.
Other countries including the UK, the USA, and many in Europe come out less well from these international comparisons. Here leaders took (or failed to take) decisions slowly or half-heartedly, economic interests were protected, and there seemed to be less confidence in and less willingness to follow scientific advice. Hindsight is helpful of course, but given the clear success of other countries similar to ours culturally (New Zealand, Australia), and in terms of population density and size (Japan), as well as those less economically advantaged (e.g. Vietnam), it's going to be hard to explain away the multiple policy failures of many national governments. The result of these failures in the UK is that today, on the 19th January 2021, 1610 people have been registered as having died within 28 days of receiving a positive COVID-19 test. That's the highest number so far in the UK on a single day and means that we are inevitably going to exceed 100,000 deaths from COVID-19. We now seem to be used to these figures - once they would have shocked and outraged us. We have become de-sensitised to death and suffering on a scale that was previously unimaginable outside of wars or major conflicts. Shouldn't we be more angry?
(Apologies for the graininess of this image but it's a great way to show how even equality isn't enough without fairness. It's not enough to make sure everyone has the same opportunities chances, we have to make sure they can use those opportunities and then benefit from them as much as anyone else).
These 1000s of deaths from COVID-19 are not random events. They highlight, and perhaps exacerbate, pre-existing inequalities. Although age is the strongest risk factor for death as a result of COVID-19, occupation, race, and social class also predict your chance of catching COVID-19, experiencing long term physical symptoms, and of death. Of course it is well documented that having 'pre-existing conditions' increases your risk of dying of COVID-19 but less often mentioned is that these 'pre-existing conditions' are strongly associated with social and economic variables. The poorer you, the more likely you are to be sick. Doesn't that make you angry? If you'd like to read an authoritative book on the subject of health inequalities try this one and for recent work by the Kings Fund on health inequalities in the UK click here
As well as the inequalities in physical health outcomes and mortality there are marked differences in people's economic and psychological well-being. And in the context of the pandemic and mandatory social distancing people who have office jobs that they can do from home, access to gardens, spare rooms, balconies, laptop computers and internet access, and family support are the clear 'winners' in the pandemic lottery. Lockdown is hard for everyone but it is much harder for some than others. The recent exposure given to the provision of meals to families who would normally qualify for 'free school meals' showed again what happens when financial gain is valued more highly than child health. If you are not familiar with this scandal you can read more about it here If you don't want to read about it here are some photographs of food parcels that families received to replace free school dinners for at least 5 days. Those images make me very angry indeed.
I grew up in a family that received free school meals and my mum was a great cook. We had no sense of shame about free school meals and appreciated the support and care that the welfare state provided to families like ours. But had my mum been sent those those paltry and pathetic offerings as a replacement for well-balanced hot school dinners, she and we would have understood what it meant to be poor and needy (half a tomato!). We would have felt belittled, ashamed, humiliated and hungry. That's a very powerful message for any family - 'You are not equal and we are not fair'.
Anger and rage are not emotions we typically talk much about. They are not 'nice' emotions and often we perceive them as destructive and aggressive. But anger and rage need not be destructive. Anger and rage have important and legitimate functions that we should not ignore. Dr Robert Leahy's work highlights the function of emotions, the value of negative emotions, and the consequences of not accepting and paying heed to our negative emotions. Whilst we should not turn anger and rage into aggression and destruction perhaps we should listen to what anger and rage are telling us about the world. We might need to consider what anger and rage tell us about ourselves. All emotions have a function. They indicate to us something important about the world, about ourselves, about other people. If anger and rage signal injustice, unfairness and inequality then let's listen, pay attention, and perhaps act. What can I do to make my bit of the world more equal and more fair? How about you?