I hope like me many of you will have the opportunity to enjoy this holiday weekend. Today is an unusual day. It is the Saturday between the Christian feasts of Good Friday and tomorrow’s Easter Sunday. It was not until a trip to Europe many years agi that I realised that for many on the continent this day, Saturday, carries a meaning and significance all of its own. It is the waiting day, sometimes called the ‘day of harrowing’; the opportunity for some traditions to strip their church altars bare of adornment to symbolise waiting and loss, or to dress statues and altars in black to express the in between time of mourning.
Personally, I value the idea of having a space in our living between periods of pain, loss and emptiness, and what for some might be times of restoration and renewal. You cannot really go from depth to height in one step, there requires to be a journey and a movement which for some might be speedy but for many will take a good length of time.
In the week that has just passed I cannot but think of the necessity of reflection, of taking time to work through the pain of our experience, to try to make sense of it and to start the faltering steps to re-orientation and new direction. It is a necessary act of human living; it is part of the pattern of the rhythm of our days. It is perhaps why with others I have been shocked by the casual ability of Westminster political leadership to fail to appreciate the enormous hurt caused by the fact that some were partying when others were mourning, some were supping wine when others were full of tears. But any comment on political morality seems increasingly to be a waste of both breath and energy.
This particular weekend, apart from its religious and cultural significance, is also a transition time in a different way. On Monday coming the last remaining elements of significant public restrictions around Covid19 will be removed in Scotland. Indeed, in the last week I have held many a conversation as I have been out and about with people who have expressed happiness and anticipation at the thought that from Monday, they will no longer have to wear masks in various locations and places. At the same time, I have held conversations with those whose perspective is very different.
We are in a moment of transition, from one phase of the pandemic and our response to it to another phase and to ‘living with Covid.’ But hurtling from one state to the other without appreciating the need for reflection and journeying would be unhelpful and so I offer some thoughts here about the need for sensitivity.
Sensitivity to fear. I know many people who are really frightened about what the next few weeks might bring as more and more people remove masks or only wear them in particular circumstances. These include many individuals who fear being imprisoned in their own homes because of the high risks they face because of underlying and significant health conditions. Their fears and anxieties cannot just be ignored and pushed to the side – they are real. Debates about the efficacy of masks in declining pandemic prevalence will do little to assuage the very real concerns that people have. In some sense the masks – designed to protect – have become symbolic and totemic of the protection from risk for so many. Whilst there has always been a risk of misplaced confidence simply because a mask is worn, it has been something which has helped people physically to feel safer and protected as they have don and doffed their ‘armour’. The removal of such protection whilst waited with anticipation by many, will feel like the stripping away of protection from others. We need to be sensitive and appreciative of those fears and concerns. We need to work with individuals not from a position of ‘pandemic’ superiority but one that is open to accepting the concerns, fears and anxieties of others, and which may require us to adjust our behaviours to meet those fears. We will not move forward as communities if we marginalise those who wish to continue to wear masks.
Sensitivity to distress. The social care sector has come through real harrowing pain in the last two years, both in our care homes and in our communities. Individuals and organisations have changed forever and whilst in the pandemic response we have witnessed the best of our humanity on the part of frontline health and care staff it has not been without cost. The data that we read in Government updates, which in the past week has moved from the Government website to Public Health Scotland – itself an indication of a transition to a new way of doing things – tells us part of the story. It is terrifying enough. It tells us in its raw form that we still have many hundreds of health and care staff isolating because they have Covid. It tells us of a worrying level of reinfections.
What it does not tell us is that we have the highest levels of absence that the social care sector has ever seen. This is both because of Covid, but much more so because of other health conditions and sickness and high levels of vacancy. The social care workforce is exhausted beyond measuring, it is broken and diminished in large part, it is running on the last drops of emptiness. We have a workforce fatigued and exhausted by the constant demands of being on the frontline for such a long period of time. In this space between where we have been and where we want to go, we need to do a lot more work on supporting the mental health fatigue of our workforce. We need to be sensitive that we will not be going back to where we have been, that people will need time and space to recover, that organisations will need real investment in ensuring that they can support their staff.
Sensitivity to change. Covid has changed many of us but none more so than the thousands of people who are suffering from Long Covid. In an illuminating article this past week Prof Devi Sridhar has highlighted the belief of many that we will be dealing with the impacts of Long Covid for many years to come. Like so many others I know friends and family who feel that life will never be the same because they are living with the physical effects of this most pernicious disease. There is just so much that we still do not know about Long Covid and I am not at all convinced that as a whole system and society that we are sensitive to the scar Covid has inflicted on our community. My particular focus and concern as we transition to new ways of dealing with the virus is that there is need for urgent work to identify the number of those working in social care who are living with Long Covid and to appropriately prioritise their needs. I simply do not think we have done this to date with sufficient consistency and thoroughness.
Sensitivity to grief. Tens of thousands of people have been affected by grief and loss as a result of Covid, both directly to the disease and by being unable to be with loved ones at times when they would have wanted to, whether in care home, hospital or at funerals. There are thousands who are today doing the work of grief, who are in the in-between time where acceptance of loss seems so far away and where any hope of a different way of loving seems all too forlorn. We need to give people time to grieve. I am ashamed reading so much of the commentary of the last few days that there is a presumption that people just need to move on, to start their lives again, to ‘forget about Covid and its cost.’ A society that fails to nurture loss fails to comfort its people. We have too many friends, neighbours and family members who need the consolation of comfort, the solidarity of our presence and support, as they grieve through these days. That will not change simply because we are moving on with the pandemic and with life. If anything, the desire of politicians and commentator, to brush the pandemic under the carpet and re-prioritise will only exacerbate the sense of abandonment that many feel today. Sensitivity to grief necessitates real action to support the bereaved, not just warm platitudes.
Today I am going to spend time thinking about the areas of my life where I need to better nurture sensitivity, in the in-between moments, on the verge of a new stage of the pandemic, I hope we can all find such a time. Sensitivity is not just the awareness of each of our senses it is the discovery of a new way, a deeper insight, a more profound being in relationship.
The Bangladeshi poet Khairul Ahsan captures this well:
Men and women seek to hide
Their weaknesses, their frailties
An inbuilt mechanism seeks to provide
An excuse for all their infirmities.
Men and women hide in the deep
Of their own sensitive mind,
Some secrets which they keep
And guard like sentinels of some kind.
Men and women crave for a touch
A delicate touch, soft, slim and smooth,
On their frail minds, if not so much
On their skin, at old age or at youth.
When their heart is touched by words
Or eyes that translate feelings into caresses,
Their spirit soars high in the sky like birds,
Yet they shrink when love offers its embraces.