We have been living a social contradiction since the middle of March. The social contract between the public and the government – previously fraying – has been under intense pressure. Recently, it seems to be on the verge of total collapse.
I give you two revered institutions, invented in Britain and – to a greater or lesser degree – successfully emulated across the world: (1) Robert Peel’s 19th century model for community policing by consent, and (2) Clement Attlee’s 20th century National Health Service. The latter – the NHS – has become a talismanic symbol of British post-war reconstruction. These organisations are hugely complicated, but they ultimately have one central, laudable purpose: they are there to provide an infrastructure to help us, the 67-odd million people that make up our nation, to care for and look after each other.
But something seems to have gone awry. Some would say that the restrictions imposed on us by our government in response to the Covid-19 epidemic are at fault. But we are probably all aware of a myriad of injustices that have been perpetrated by “the system” in the years BC (Before Covid).
By now you will all have heard the heart-wrenching story of a former soap-opera actress, Leandra Ashton, sharing video of footage of her mother (a trained nurse, 73 years old) attempting to care, in turn, for her mother (aged 97), who had been trapped in a care home for “her own safety” for many months. Whatever the circumstances leading up to this, the spectre of a police force arresting the 73 year old mother, hand-cuffing her and leaving a confused 97-year old stranded in a car throughout this ordeal, is simply astonishingly shocking. What have we become? Where will this end?
Because the implications of this sorry episode go a lot further than this. Despite praise for the police for “quickly de-arresting” the lady and a defence being put in place that they were “just doing their job”, I am afraid that this is not the face of a society that has a long-term future. It is not acceptable – in any circumstance – to restrict those nearer the end of their lives from spending the time they have left with their family. No-one should get in the way of a child looking after a parent in their darkest hour of need.
Where has the compassion gone? The care for one’s neighbours? Where do we draw the line?
Covid-19 has imposed challenges, but there are examples from around the world of nations that have unified and worked their way through. Our approach seems to be the precise opposite – top-down diktat, enforced by criminal law. The consequences are, it seems, horrific. It is possible to explain away some of the happenings in March and April of this year as panic set in. But now, after months of preparations? Society is a fragile thing, and events of 2020 have made our democracy seem rickety, given the ease with which the leadership has ripped apart the checks and balances that have taken centuries to put in place.
“Covid-19 must not be used as an excuse to restrict citizens’ fundamental freedoms. Freedom of the press, of opinion, of expression, and of assembly are all universally recognised human rights and are guaranteed by the Zimbabwean Constitution. The government also has a responsibility to investigate and prosecute those responsible for violating human rights”.
Who wrote these words? The Heads of a Missions to Zimbabwe, in August 2020. One of the Mission partners is none other than Her Majesty’s Government of the United Kingdom.
Caring for one’s nearest and dearest – and giving people the freedom to spend one’s last weeks, months, or years with the ones one loves – are fundamental human freedoms.
Perhaps we should provide HMG with a full-length mirror, but we must also take a long, hard look at ourselves.
Dr Alex Starling is an advisor to and non-executive director of various early-stage technology companies.