OPINION: What have we actually learned from the pandemic?

Nurse Maria Alexiou preparing COVID vaccinations at the new mass vaccination centre at Connaught Hal

Nurse Maria Alexiou preparing Covid vaccinations at the vaccination centre at Connaught Hall in Attleborough - Credit: Danielle Booden

William Armstrong OBE, former Sheriff of Norwich and retired coroner and tribunal judge offers his thoughts on how humanity has dealt with Covid

"The summer has ended and we are not saved." So wrote the prophet Jeremiah .

That was nearly 3,000 years ago. His words, however, seem to speak to our present predicament. Despite the relaxation of restrictions, the pandemic is still with us.

It is a pandemic which has brought enormous losses - loss of life, loss of jobs, loss of confidence and security and, for many people, impairment or worsening of physical and mental health. As well as all this, has there not also been a certain collective loss of hope?

More than anything it is this hope that we need to recover.

What have we learned from Covid? May I offer a few thoughts or rather pose a few questions?

Have we learned to understand that we live in a world that is not free of risk, a world that we cannot completely subdue and control and that we never will be able to?

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Have we also learned that the institutions we have created to look after us have been exposed as fragile and vulnerable?

We have become used to the NHS caring for us from the cradle to the grave. But, despite the skill and sheer heroism of so many doctors, nurses and others, we have witnessed the NHS approaching breaking point.

This is alarming for all of us but specially so for those who are most reliant on public services - the sick, physically and mentally, the disabled, the poor, the weak and the vulnerable.

Have we learned a little more about death, or at least, how to cope with it and live with it? I ask this because of the sheer numbers of those who have died and the daily statistics with which we have been assailed.

One of Norwich's greatest citizens Sir Thomas Browne wrote, "The long habit of living indisposeth us for dying. "We are not good at dealing with dying and death but the pandemic has brought death more into our consciousness.

William Armstrong, chairman of Healthwatch Norfolk. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

William Armstrong, chairman of Healthwatch Norfolk. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2018

"Perhaps we have been forced to confront our own mortality - what may await us when we have "shuffled off this mortal coil."

As a corollary, have we also learned more about the impact of death and how we support the bereaved? People have died alone and in fear.

Lives have ended in hospitals and care homes with the dying having little or no contact with family and loved ones.

Funerals have been truncated during lockdown. People have not been able to come together to celebrate the life that has been lost and to share memories.

This has been a dreadful deprivation. Perhaps we have learned more about the importance of mourning, how to grieve and how best to support the bereaved.

Have we learned more about loneliness? There are two points. Firstly, Covid has exacerbated the impact of loneliness - particularly amongst the elderly, those living alone and those forced to isolate during lockdown.

Secondly, have we, during this crisis, learned more about how many lonely people there are in our society? AGE UK estimates that in the UK more than a million people say they go over a month without speaking to a friend, neighbour or family member. We now know that loneliness can impact adversely on physical and mental health. It is a major public health issue.

But there is a really positive side to all this. Have we learned more about the importance of community and our dependence on each other? Have we learned to place a little less stress on our cherished independence and a little more emphasis on our inter- dependence?

Have we learned to reflect more on the unique worth of each and every individual - young and old, rich and poor. Something that has made me really angry is reading of the death of say an 85-year-old woman from Covid.

But we are told she did have "other conditions". Although these other conditions may not have in themselves been life threatening, there is an implication that perhaps her life was getting towards its close and her death therefore, although sad for those close to her, need not trouble the rest of us unduly.

But surely each life is sacred. Every life has a unique inherent value. There is no hierarchy of worth. Not only is every life important, every death affects us all. 

Have we also learned more about the injustice of inequalities? The pandemic has not affected us all equally. It has highlighted inequalities. For example in Norfolk there is a six year gap in average life expectancy between the richest and poorest parts of the county and the poorest people have been more likely to suffer from the ill effects of Covid than the wealthiest.

A recent report from Buttle UK states that two thirds of disadvantaged children have fallen behind in their education during Covid. The gap between rich and poor is widening and Covid has made the situation worse. This is morally indefensible . It is not fair. It is not just and it should shame us all.

Finally, have we learned about the need we all have to recover a sense of hope? The Reverend James Hawkey wrote recently " Hope is a moral choice signifying what we believe about the nature of creation and ultimate purpose."

Have we made that moral choice? Have we not only learned from Covid but have we also acknowledged the need to embrace a more hopeful vision of what we may become as individuals and as a society? Are we daring to hope?

William Armstrong is a former Sheriff of Norwich and retired coroner and tribunal judge.

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