Beyond words … there is silence: a reflection on care home lockdowns.

We are in the midst of a period of anniversaries. Last Thursday it was a year since the World Health Organisation declared Coronavirus to be a global pandemic and we have to date witnessed the deaths of over 2.6 million people across the world. Today is also the anniversary of the first death in Scotland of someone who had Covid19.

But the 13th March is also the anniversary of lockdown for many of Scotland’s care homes although by then last year a good number of care homes had already chosen to shut their doors to all but essential visitors. At the time no one could have imagined or thought that they would be locking down for more than a few weeks. After all, care homes had been used to lockdowns for other infectious diseases such as norovirus and such experiences were rarely for more than two to three weeks. At most I remember most commentators were talking about three or four months

I recollect at the time writing and talking about the fact that I believed shutting our care homes was a necessary and essential act in order to literally protect and save lives. At the start of the pandemic and for the first few weeks I am sure this early action did indeed save lives. There was so much we did not know about this virus and the fear that many of us felt was real and palpable. And of course in those early days we did not know about asymptomatic spread and the hidden threat the virus held even when staff were wearing what was then an accepted level of personal protected equipment. We did not know the impact of the spread of the virus and the hidden killer which it was.

Over time and especially as protective measures were finally introduced such as testing new admissions to care homes and the testing of staff including those who were asymptomatic the balance of protection against exclusion was felt by many to increasingly be wrong and misplaced. That is why the publication in recent times of new Guidance in Scotland called Open with Care has been so important. That is why it is imperative that we now realise especially with all the mitigations in place that the human right to association and contact is intrinsic to individual health and wellbeing.

An anniversary is a moment for reflection and consideration about actions that were taken or not taken, about mistakes that were made and lessons that need to be learned. I remain convinced that lockdown was essential at the start but if we consider what we know now it is clear that moving forward, and given the almost inevitability of future pandemics, that we cannot again exclude people from essential contact and relationships. Given what we now know surely we have all of us collectively to make sure that those who live in care homes, in sheltered settings or indeed who are patients in hospitals do not experience the isolation and exclusion which has been theirs in the last year?

So today, and especially tonight as I light a candle, in reflecting and in remembrance, I will be thinking of the countless hundreds and thousands who have lived through this lockdown pandemic in our care homes. I will be thinking of the residents and their families and friends, and of the staff who despite at times overwhelming fear and anxiety put themselves daily on the frontline to care and give support. They were and are the ever-present ones whose solidarity of compassion and care cannot be forgotten. And I will also be thinking of those whose life has ended in the last year. For though hundreds have died from Covid there have been countless more who because of restrictions and exclusion have not been able to spend the time they have wanted and needed with family members. There have been too many who have died alone without the touch of love from faces known and cherished in both care home and hospital.

We can never undo the past, but we can commit to making sure that we learn the painful lesson that lockdowns in care settings should be limited and specific and should never again extend to the length of time which they have. I believe this also means we have to work seriously at thinking today how we can enable contact and care from family to be delivered and supported even during situations of ‘outbreak’ and even in what we have come to call ‘Covid wards.’

This last year has taught me both the power of words but also the necessity of silence. There are times at which you simply cannot wrap your feelings into words and so it is better to be silent. There are times when what you hear and experience is so profound whether by shock or sadness that it is better to rest in silence. There are times when the pain you witness and feel makes silence rather than words the only companion to the hurt.

The writer Ben Okri sums this up well in ‘Birds of Heaven’ :

“We began before words, and we will end beyond them.
It sometimes seems to me that our days are poisoned with too many words. Words said and not meant. Words said ‘and’ meant. Words divorced from feeling. Wounding words. Words that conceal. Words that reduce. Dead words…

We are all wounded inside one way or other. We all carry unhappiness within us for some reason or other. Which is why we need a little gentleness and healing from one another. Healing in words, and healing beyond words. Like gestures. Warm gestures. Like friendship, which will always be a mystery. Like a smile, which someone described as the shortest distance between two people.

Yes, the highest things are beyond words.”

So as I reflect on this anniversary of lockdown I will seek a place to be silent, to be beyond words. I will listen beyond words to silence, to reach beyond tears to healing, to find beyond hurt a new determination, to grieve beyond this day and to commit to uphold and support others.

Every single person who has been affected by the care home lockdown during this last year will have their own memories beyond words and today’s anniversary will be hard and painful for far too many. But today must also be the end of the hardness and the start of reconciliation and restoration, of renewal and hope. Today has to be the moment not solely to remember and grieve but to commit to working together to change tomorrow. That work can only ever be done in collaboration and partnership, not in anger and fear, not in distrust and hate, but by finding that space where we can sit together, work together, commit together… that place which changes our future by our own hands… that place which is beyond words and is the silence of two people, of a whole community, loving and supporting one another.

Donald Macaskill