Tonight, as we have done every Thursday night since this crisis began, we will open the bedroom window wide at 8.00 pm and lean out, clapping, and rattling a tambourine. Our neighbours come to their windows, or to the tops of their drives, some banging pots and pans or ringing bells. From the other side of the house we can hear the same sounds from across the valley. As we clap, we wave to each other, we remind ourselves and each other that we’re a community, that we need each other.
And every Friday morning I see grumpy posts on Twitter, pointing out that if we vote or ever have voted Tory, we’ve no business clapping for carers. Pointing out that those carers need PPE and testing and decent salaries more than they need our applause. Really? We had no idea! We thought that clapping would solve everything!
Of course I can see where this cynicism comes from. I’m not an automatic joiner-in. When I see Tory politicians who not so long back brayed their delight at having blocked a payrise for nurses, and who support an immigration policy that defines most of our carers as low-skilled workers who would not be eligible to come here under the points-based system, joining in the applause, I share that cynicism.
When I hear that we are enjoined to clap for Boris, or sing to congratulate him on the birth of his umpteenth child, I’m having no truck with that. Nor even to sing birthday greetings to the redoubtable Captain Tom. I am cross when the BBC News claims that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge ‘led’ the applause. Not my applause, they didn’t. I can be as grumpy as the next person, in other words.
This whole thing wasn’t started by politicians or royals. It was an idea mooted on social media, inspired by the video clips we were all seeing from Italy and elsewhere, of spontaneous rounds of applause for health workers, and displays of solidarity within communities. I wasn’t sure it would take off here – we are British, after all – but it has, and I’m glad.
Because if we want, not to go back to how things were, but to learn from this crisis, to learn who we really need, and how we can support those most valuable members of society, not just in times of crisis but at all times, we need to keep making a noise.
We’re making a noise about all of those people who are risking their lives, who are keeping us safe, who are taking care of us, because we want to ensure that when the crisis is past they don’t just disappear back into the shadows. We’re making a noise about carers because we want to ensure that when the crisis is past, their value is not forgotten.
I don’t even really care whether those who clap now have voted Tory in the past. I care that their values may be shifting, may have shifted, and that even Tories may think twice about disparaging or dismissing those who are our heroes now. I don’t care if they haven’t been angry in the past, as long as they understand a bit more of the anger now, as we see the impact of underfunding of the health service, inadequate staffing levels and failures of planning.
I care that now, as so many of our priorities and values have been overturned, we are sharing both the gratitude and the sense that those priorities and values were wrong before, and must change permanently.
Polly Toynbee’s response to the clap refuseniks chimes with my own:
So when next week’s clap for the NHS comes, join in out of gratitude but also out of anger – anger at how depleted the nursing workforce has become and how badly the successive Conservative governments have treated the profession.https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/apr/24/year-nurse-tories-10-years-bad-care-nhs-crisis
I’m reminded too of how, when there have been major terrorist attacks, many attempts to assert solidarity with victims, to emphasise our shared humanity in the face of hatred have been derided as clichéd and simplistic.
As Stig Abell says:
At moments of crisis and trauma, the use of comprehensible and familiar phrasing is itself a sign of something important: it is a bid for connection. Cliché demonstrates community, our intention to understand one another. It does not matter that “standing in solidarity” has no practical import, or that prayers may be just so much shouting into a void. … Clichés are good things when pressed into the service of communication in the aftermath of the incomprehensible and the traumatic. They often reveal the good intentions we share, and they are more valuable than ever.https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/cliche-terror-attacks/
Kenan Malik makes some powerful points too, about the use of the word ‘hero’. If that normalises the deaths of NHS staff and other carers in some way, suggests that, like soldiers in wartime, they signed up to put their lives in danger, it’s dangerous. They didn’t. Pharmacists and health-care assistants and midwives and GPs, paramedics, nurses and consultants, signed up to help people, to save lives (directly or indirectly), but there was no reason they would have thought the job could kill them. Of course that makes it all the more remarkable that they’re doing what they’re doing, with or without the necessary level of PPE. When we applaud them we recognise that they weren’t given a choice (or only the choice between risking their life and walking away from patients in need of help).
Few of them would want to be described as heroes. Most would see themselves as ordinary people doing ordinary jobs in extraordinary circumstances. Many might suggest that most people in their place would do what they are doing. And they may be right in that. What they show is that heroism is a very human attribute. It is expressed not in having an incomparable character or possessing superhuman abilities but in being human to the utmost. Heroism in everyday life is, from this perspective, an expression of our humanness. It has become fashionable to denigrate humans as selfish or callous or egotistical. Many are. But many more are dedicated and compassionate and kind. Humans are far better than we often give ourselves credit for. In celebrating the endeavours of nurses and care workers and bus drivers and cleaners and volunteers, and the myriad others working to pull us through these surreal times, we should not forget that many are forced to be heroic, through a lack of resources or poor conditions.https://kenanmalik.com/2020/04/26/heroism-and-the-quality-of-being-human/
And, as Rachel Clarke@doctor_oxford, said on Twitter,
We’re not soldiers. We didn’t sign up to die for a cause. We don’t want red arrows, medals, jingoism or war rhetoric. We want masks, gloves, gowns & visors. Could you actually focus your minds on that, please?
We can agree, passionately, with that. But the Thursday night clapping is not an expensive PR stunt. It’s ordinary people – people who don’t have the resources or the clout to get carers what they need, to change government priorities or policies. We’re telling the carers – and it’s a broad definition, not just the ones who save lives in the ICU – that they are cared about, and the government that we care about them, and that we expect our government to translate that into the action that’s needed to keep them safe, so they can keep us safe.
We clap for all of these people (and those whose deaths have not yet been recorded). And we clap for our family, friends, neighbours and colleagues on the front line. We can’t stop now. And when this crisis is no longer a crisis, we mustn’t stop making a noise.