I’ve often remarked in this blog that in the strange patterning of days some words seem to become prominent in the conversations of the moment. Perhaps the word of the past week and for such strange times is ‘freedom’.
Freedom, that most elusive of desires, an emotion and state unable to be grasped and held, always open to escape, always unsettling, rarely achieved. It carries with it connotations of being empowered, having the right to act, to speak, or think as one wants. We celebrate freedom of choice, the liberty to be autonomous, the right and privilege to not be shackled or imprisoned by another or indeed by ourselves. In literature and art we try to depict the freedom of birds that fly, of oceans that stretch out, of rivers that determine direction. Freedom so hard to describe but so precious when absent.
Our newspapers across the political and tabloid/broadsheet spectrum were trumpeting headlines this last week declaring ‘Freedom Day’ a day when restrictions will be removed or largely limited. All of this following the announcement by the First Minister that on March 21st, the mandatory wearing of face masks in all public places, including pubs, restaurants, and shops along with the one metre physical distancing rule and the legal requirement for businesses to keep customer contact details will be removed. She declared this “is possible only because widespread vaccination coverage and better treatments have reduced the direct harms of the virus.”
Whether or not the slow restoration of former practice can be defined as freedom is a moot point. Indeed, along with the removal of restrictions comes the advocacy for caution and concern, a call to take public and personal responsibility. This is to be manifested in individuals choosing voluntarily to wear masks in crowded or public places, to be ‘sensitive’ to those who may have particular risks and vulnerabilities, and to act responsibly should one become ill. A call to good neighbourliness and social responsibility is to take the place of mandating, legislation and requirement.
For many fellow citizens the reverting to former practice will indeed feel like a sense of freedom, but for not a few the next few weeks and months remain uncertain and fearful and feel like the lessening or loss of freedom. The disability advocate Dr Sally Witcher (@SalWitcher) writing on Twitter this past week asks:
“ Why should we have [to] be at the mercy of other people’s selflessness & willingness to protect/look after us? We’re not objects of charity. We’re equal active citizens. We fought for years for equality & human rights as relying on people to do the right thing just doesn’t work.
Of course we all want to go back to ‘normal’. None more than me after 2 years indoors. That’s what I call a massive restriction! Compared to that wearing a mask, etc is no restriction at all. And if businesses installed air filtration there have to be business benefits.
So-called ‘restrictions’ are protections that enable everyone’s freedom, not freedom for some at the cost of loss of it for others. They keep everyone safe from long Covid, new variants, and still unknown long term clinical consequences of even mild illness.”
It certainly, does not feel like freedom for so many people who have needed the maximum degree of self-protection from this still pernicious and dangerous virus.
What will happen to social care staff in care homes and homecare remains at the time of writing at best uncertain. Take care homes as an example. We are still awaiting guidance from clinicians and Public Health Scotland as to what, if any mitigations and measures will be required into the future. It is likely there will be a degree of testing for staff and potentially visitors. But how this will be undertaken, by whom, and how it will be paid for given the UK Government’s statements to remove free access to tests (including in care homes) in the last week, seems uncertain. What will be required about masks if anything?
But what is even more pressing is the need for clarity on the current restrictions being placed on care homes. We are still caught in the endless cycle of care home residents having to isolate should an outbreak be declared in a care home and many unable to engage in normal activity and relationships. Such periods of isolation can literally go on for weeks because no sooner does one period of 14 days end then another often seems to start creating a new ‘outbreak’ and often as a response to very few cases. As many of us have been arguing with and trying to convince clinical leaders – and to date unsuccessfully – such extended periods of isolation (even with a named visitor in place) are unacceptable, disproportionate, unnecessary, and hugely damaging.
When is freedom going to come for them and what will it look like? In a week which has seen a significant increase in the number of Covid cases affecting care home residents this virus shows no signs of going away. So what does living with the virus mean for these individuals – a perpetual state of isolation and confinement? What quality of life is that? Anecdotally many managers and staff are saying to me that the level of decline and deterioration of residents forced into such isolation is wholly unacceptable and is they are convinced a set of actions which shortens life and certainly precipitates significant cognitive decline. This is simply not justifiable on any grounds, epidemiological, clinical or moral, nor is it, in my opinion, at all proportionate or legitimate in a legal sense. We have declared freedom for the wider public and yet still have no open door to a better future for those who have suffered the most.
Sounds of freedom outside and the rush to throw off masks and restrictions for so many in our care homes ring hollow and empty in both rhetoric and reality.
But of course, freedom took and has taken on a wholly different level of meaning in the last few days as we have seen the horrific scenes from the Ukraine and the results of a despotic dictator wreak havoc across a modern, inclusive and open society. The fragility of civilisation has never been so vivid as I have watched fathers break down in tears leaving their children behind as they are conscripted into a fight against the enemy of their people; as I watched people cowering to shelter from attacks in underground stations; as bombs were seen to rip open the homes of the innocent and land on kindergartens; as tens of thousands started a journey as refugees seeking a border of peace and escape. As Europe is plunged into a darkness we have not seen for generations, we are all of us yearning for a return to peace. Freedom seems so far away for so many in the blood and tears of the Ukraine this morning.
All of us wherever we are and whoever we are seek that common gift of freedom knowing only too well that sometimes it comes at a very real price. So today with so many I will spend time thinking of the women, men and children of the Ukraine before all else because it is only in solidarity with those who are suffering that true freedom for ourself comes.
I leave you with the words of a poem:
the elusive one;
once caught always lost,
once lost always found,
where is she to be searched for?
when does she discover you?
they look for her in their books
and search for her in their stratagems;
by policy papers and wordy manifestos
they fail to imprison her laughter.
they seek her in empty corridors
echoing with the sounds of powerless dictators,
dined to bloating on their own importance
fed to obesity by a diet of propaganda.
they seek her in the warmth of missiles
and search for her amongst a bed of nuclear pillows
pulling back the blanket of macho security
to reveal the nakedness of fear.
they seek her in the words of hatred
where prejudice becomes the scapegoat’s friend
and bullying the national sport
of nations too ashamed of difference.
they seek her in your heart
where she lies dormant
emptied of enthusiasm,
lazy through lack of exercise
exhausted by inactivity.
the elusive one;
when will they learn
she is not a place but a sound
not a word but a whisper
not a weapon but a heart
not a prize but a gift.
When will they learn?
when freedom imprisons hate
and freezes out fear.