Monday 13 July 2020

"He ain't heavy, he's my brother" - who cares for the carers?

Photo Collage by my friend Lis Warren

It is self-evident to say that we are living through strange and troubling times: you need to be over 80 to have any significant recollection of the Second World War, so for most of us, the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated lockdown is by some distance the most significant, disruptive and worrying collective experience of our lives. We must, of course, be careful not to overstate its impact upon us or our own level of suffering and deprivation: those of us fortunate enough to have unaffected income, a home with outdoor space and the company of others, together with the means and ability to connect with others through the online world should not be tempted too much into the realms of self-pity.  The privations and worries of our grandparents in wartime were infinitely greater.

If we and our loved ones have not (yet) succumbed to the illness, all that has really happened to us is that we have stayed at home, saved a lot of discretionary expenditure on leisure activities and tended our homes and gardens to within an inch of their lives. My own extensive garden has never been so well tended, many of the boxes which were dumped in the loft or the garage when we moved house three years ago have been tidied and sorted, and many a neglected DIY task has been sorted. So despite occasionally feeling sorry for myself, reflecting on missed outings and holidays, friends and family not seen, I have (so far) little to complain about.

Yet for many, it is not so. In the UK alone, a horrendous death toll means that there are tens of thousands mourning the premature loss of a loved one, and tens of thousands more are still struggling to overcome the lingering and in some cases life-changing consequences of COVID-19.

And whilst I, and many others, have had to do no more than just stay at home and forego some discretionary pleasures, many others have seen their workload increase, their working conditions and practices changed beyond recognition and the level of stress and strain hugely increased.

There has been, quite rightly, much said and done to recognise the efforts of our so-called “key workers”, most obviously in the health and social care sectors, but also those who provide our essential needs - the shop workers, the delivery drivers, the teachers, the IT people who have kept the internet running seamlessly, the refuse collectors, those in the media who have kept us informed and entertained - the list is endless. The very least that the rest of us could do was to stand on our doorsteps every Thursday and applaud, however much that at times felt like a rather empty “look at me” gesture, akin to the way in which some feel compelled to modify their social media profile picture in response to some cause or other.

It is, of course, far too early for anyone to write the history of the pandemic, not least as it hasn’t even reached its peak globally, and remains a significant threat locally here in the UK. However, I hope that when we are able to look back on 2020 - let’s hope it is only 2020 - we may at least be able to see it as the start of a more caring society compared to that which appeared to have been evolving in the “take back control” and “America first” world of the past decade or so. Surely, if we have learned anything from the pandemic, it is that there absolutely IS such a thing as society, whatever the late Mrs T meant by her notorious “no such thing” line. We have seen a relatively young Prime Minister, the Heir to the Throne, the Health Secretary and the Chief Medical Officer all laid low by the infection in a manner which reminded us that in the face of a virulent disease, we are all in equal need of the expertise of doctors but equally the care and dedication of all who work in healthcare, from the consultant to the ward cleaner.

We are all links in a very long and fragile chain. Advanced human society is built upon each and every one of us performing a particular and specialised role, and therefore depending on others who perform another equally specialised role, and those upon whom we depend are often those whose role is most easily overlooked - until they are unable to do it.

I remember once hearing - on an “Understanding Industry” course - that in any organisation, the person whose absence is most immediately noticed is not the person at the top, but rather those supposedly at the bottom. In a school, the Caretaker’s absence would be immediately noticed, as it’s he or she who opens the building at the crack of dawn. A Headteacher could be absent for several days without any pupil noticing. In a hospital, the consultant surgeon cannot do her or his job if the laundry people haven’t provided clean scrubs. One could make similar points about every workplace or organisation.

Of course, we must not from this conclude that those at the top - the leaders, the experts, the bosses - don’t matter as much as the rank and file. Of course they do, and surely another thing that we have learned from the pandemic is that we have not, as some tried to argue at the time of the EU Referendum, “had enough of experts”. We need our experts and wise leadership more than ever.

But what we do all need is to CARE for and about each other.

There’s a commonly used Latin expression Quis custodiet…, abbreviated from Quis custodiet ipsos custodes which rightly asks “who keeps an eye on the guards?”, reminding us that even those who supposedly act in our interest should themselves be held to account.

Well equally importantly at all times, and especially of late, is “who cares for the carers?” It’s a very pertinent question: my son once put it very well by saying “Who gives Father Christmas a Christmas present?”

We are all enormously indebted to carers in the broadest sense at present, be they experts working on the longed-for vaccine, scientists and politicians trying to figure out what it is safe and prudent to do when, van drivers bringing our online orders, nurses and doctors tending the sick, pharmacists keeping us supplied with our life-preserving medication, charity employees and volunteers keeping their vital work going in the face of devastating loss of income, but equally importantly the millions doing their ordinary jobs: people like my son and younger daughter working in their schools or my elder daughter helping to keep a major university's life and vibrancy going in the post-corona world, or volunteers like my wife sewing scrubs and masks for the NHS, or a friend of mine who lives with Stage 4 cancer and is using her online voice to campaign for the resumption of full diagnosis and cancer care for others. Then there are also all those whom I have seen and heard just quietly doing their bit, maybe by helping those being shielded, sharing fun stuff online or generally just being kind. These, in the broadest sense, are the carers.

So we must all remember to care for the carers. They are not heroes, and they have no superpowers. They are just human beings, with the same frailty, doubt, guilt, imposter syndrome and anxiousness that we all feel at times. I was moved to write this post after seeing evidence of such things in the much-maligned but essential world of social media. I have in recent times spoken with friends who are on the proverbial frontline and I have seen from their social media posts, public and private, first-hand evidence of the stresses and strains of their lives and work. I have also seen honest online expressions of self-doubt from an eminent NHS consultant and from a friend who is a tireless and enthusiastic advocate for others living with diabetes, who suddenly found herself creaking under the strain. Equally importantly I have seen evidence of supportive acts of kindness towards these people: I have seen those who give care being cared for, and it is surely very important that we all remember that they too have their needs.

So this post is for the carers. It has been my pleasure and privilege in recent years to become friends with many who work in the NHS as doctors and nurses, thanks to my small involvement in the diabetes community, and I have watched in awe as these people - if you are reading this you know who you are - not just do their jobs, but go way beyond the call of duty to ensure that the rest of us are cared for.

My Latin teacher wife thinks that Quis curabit ipsos curatores just about works as a Latin motto for “who cares for the carers?” so there’s a good title, but being me, I also need a song title for this post. How about the Hollies’ 1969 classic He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother. It immediately came to my mind when I saw that much-shared picture of a black man carrying an injured white counter-demonstrator at the "Black Lives Matter" demonstration a few weeks ago. 

It’s a wonderful song, an entire sermon in 4 ½ minutes, all about sharing the burdens of others. 

He ain't heavy - He's my brother


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