Peter's Blog

Inspired by Love and Anger

Written by Peter Johnston on .

One of my favourite hymns in the collection written by John Bell and the late Graham Maule is the hymn “Inspired by love and anger” which is set to the Irish folk tune Salley Gardens. A beautiful melody that softens the blow of the lyrics, it makes palatable for the many the challenge contained in what we are singing about: a clarion call to wake up and smell the coffee about the injustice implicit in the way our world works and the place of those who profess to follow Christ to both point out those injustices and to work towards a world in which they are minimised.

Inspired by love and anger,
disturbed by need and pain,
informed of God’s own bias,
we ponder once again:
‘How long must some folks suffer?
How long can few folk mind?
How long dare vain self-interest
turn prayer and pity blind?’

I watched and listened carefully to what our Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, said in his address to the nation on leaving the care of St Thomas’ Hospital. I am very thankful that he is recovering from the Covid-19 infection. Seeing what some of my friends and colleagues have been and are going through with the infection you know how debilitating and life-threatening it can be for some people. That Johnson was hospitalised shows that his symptoms must have been bad indeed and I am sure it was an awful time for him and family over the past week. I wish him well and, as with all those who are struggling with the coronavirus and the repercussions for their health of the current pandemic, I pray for a restoration of health.

There were two things that Johnson said that particularly caught my attention. One was his reference to the NHS as being an institution that has love at its core. This is, I have no doubt, true. This is so because to become a healthcare professional, in whatever capacity, is more than just a job for most people, it is a calling; something I know about in my own career. We do it not just to pay the bills, but because there is a drive within us to be doing something that makes a difference to society and to people’s lives, directly, immediately, in their time of need.

They are inspired by love.

The other thing that roused me in what Johnson said was his deliberate mention of some of those healthcare professionals who cared for him. He went on to name them and to note the nations from which they had emigrated in order to find a home in the UK and to work in our National Health Service. My immediate reaction was one of anger to this. If I had been channelling Elvis I would have shot my TV. How dare he!

I was inspired by anger.

Some commentators I have read since have wondered whether the experience of having his life threatened by Covid-19 may have changed Johnson’s perspective, and seeing the immigrant nurses working to save his life, as he memorably described it, made him realise the value of the work they have done. It was strange to mention their home countries unless it was signalling a change of heart from the ghastly and odious policies of his own Government’s Home Office towards immigration under the leadership of Priti Patel who utterly failed in her performance last week at the daily press conference either to reassure the nation or to apologise for the shortages in Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) with which the NHS is struggling.

My sincere hope is that those commentators are correct and that Johnson’s experience has awakened in him the realisation that those who work in careers such as healthcare are valuable and need to be supported with more than words. However, I will not believe it until I see actions follow.

Even if they are right, it reveals something about Johnson that we all suspected he shared in common with his good friend in the White House, Donald Trump: a lack of empathy and single-minded focus on himself and what serves his interests and needs. That he only now realises the value of the nurses who care for their patients day in and day out when he is in that moment of need is very revealing. What about over the last ten years while the NHS has been systematically starved of funding under the banner of ‘austerity’? What about when he was leading a campaign for Brexit that hung on a massive lie about funding for the NHS that he knew was a falsehood? What about when voices in the campaign for Brexit and since have been stirring up dissent towards immigrant workers who serve our nation as healthcare workers, manual labourers, teachers, and so on? No, he rode that wave of bigotry and insular nationalism all the way to becoming Prime Minister, his life-time goal.

Is it just vain self-interest at work now, or will Johnson actually change his tune?

On Sunday mornings in the messages I have been leading in a new format I have been deliberately biting my tongue over the mis-steps of our UK Government in its response to the Covid-19 pandemic. On Easter Sunday some of that anger and frustration spilled out.

From those for ever victims
of heatless human greed,
their cruel plight composes
a litany of need:
‘Where are the fruits of justice?
Where are the signs of peace?
When is the day when prisoners
and dreams find their release?’

What is painfully evident now is that, just as in the United States, our Government failed us in not heeding the advice that was emanating from bodies like the World Health Organisation and the examples of nations who, before us, were having to respond to Covid-19.

I suspect part of that is the same hubris amongst some that denies the reality of economic and reputational damage that Brexit has and will inflict on the UK, which surfaced once again in the awful appeal to “Blitz Spirit” to get through the challenge of a viral pandemic. If you read accounts of what it was like to live through the Blitz and to survive its aftermath, you know the extent of the damage it did to people, physically and mentally. The rose-tinted “take it on the chin” attitude is one only someone who has no experience of the reality or little empathy for those who will face the burden of what “taking it on the chin” actually means for most people would so glibly mention.

My first degree is in biology, but you didn’t need a biology degree six weeks ago to realise that some of the advice that Boris Johnson was getting from his advisers was catastrophically wrong. When he made his famous comment about “taking it on the chin” and letting the virus sweep across the country he was referring to some of the advice he had been listening to. He was not advocating for this, I should point out, but saying that this was advice he was hearing. However, one always should judge by actions, not just by the words that are used. Where are the fruit? Where are the signs?

And around this same period while other countries were approaching British manufacturers of ventilators or PPE and placing orders for equipment, these companies have reported subsequently, despite having reached out to the UK Government, that they heard nothing back (for instance this story.). We now know that the UK Government made a choice not to participate in a EU scheme to source ventilators, putting the UK at a disadvantage in purchasing these life-saving machines. The preparations were not happening. The investment into equipment that would become so essential was not happening.

Now it is happening, of course, as it becomes painfully obvious how necessary that equipment is for patients and carers, but it is too little, too late. We are behind the curve, and thousands of lives have been lost.

The fascination with “herd immunity” by some influential voices in the UK Government is a death sentence for thousands. When the UK Government realised just how bad it looked they tried to change their tune, but the damage was in large part done. The UK had wasted weeks in which, in order to protect the economy, it failed to make the decisions to restrict movement, invest in vital equipment that would be needed later and to start testing people on a massive scale, quarantining those who tested positive and then putting in the effort to trace all their contacts and then get those who had had contact with them to self-isolate for 14 days. This takes a lot of effort and expertise, but it is what those countries who have already had experience of epidemics know is essential, and it is what the World Health Organisation has been recommending for months.

If that had happened immediately we may not have needed to go into full lockdown as we are now, with the devastating affect this is going to have on our economy. Note, however, that keeping the economy going was used as a reason to put off difficult decisions in the face of Covid-19, while the damage inflicted by Brexit on the economy was ignored by those same people now in power in Downing Street.

From those for ever shackled
to what their wealth can buy,
the fear of lost advantage
provokes the bitter cry,
‘Don’t query our position!
Don’t criticise our wealth!
Don’t mention those exploited
by politics and stealth!’

We have seen the Health Minister, Matt Hancock, in recent days, following the lead of Priti Patel, and of Donald Trump in the United States, try to shift the blame for a shortage of PPE to those who need to use it. Hancock described PPE as a precious resource. Aye, that it is, because the investment was not made timeously to have stock ready for this time of need. When you cut systems to the bone, there is precious little capacity for dealing with situations out of the ordinary such as a global pandemic. When you are slow to adjust to a new crisis, then the effects of that slow response will ripple out for months to come.

Lest we not forget that the Prime Minister did not hold a COBRA meeting to discuss Covid-19 until the beginning of March, the whole of February wasted. Big decisions like closing down events were being made by organisations and groups ahead of Government policy changes. Horrifically poor decisions like allowing massive sporting gatherings (such as the Cheltenham Festival) to take place when they should have been shut down created needless super-spreader events.

I felt it myself at that period. I was wanting to close Ferryhill church a week earlier than the institution’s advice as all the signs, to me, looked like that was what we should be doing. There was a lag in making decisions at a time when every day counted. Aberdeen Presbytery actually jumped the gun in giving an instruction to close churches for worship ahead of the Church of Scotland's advice.

To God, who through the prophets
proclaimed a different age,
we offer earth’s indifference,
its agony and rage:
‘When will the wrongs be righted?
When will the kingdom come?
When will the world be generous
to all instead of some?’

Now we are paying the price as a country for tardiness. I suspect there is some laziness at work here amongst our decision-makers. Remember Boris Johnson was on holiday through much of February after seeing the culmination of his tool to reach power, Brexit, tip over the 31 January 2020 point so that we had left Europe. Just when critical decisions should have been taking place, he was absent. And on his return he was slow to respond and dismissive in his attitude. He will not be allowed to forget his flippant comments about shaking hands with everyone in a hospital that had Covid-19 patients. He was, as he has always been, fundamentally not serious, at a time which demanded a serious response. Again, the same pattern as with Donald Trump in the United States. And both our countries are now paying the price for that lack of seriousness.

It has revealed itself in Donald Trump’s threats in the past week to remove US funding from the WHO, and in a comment that was made during one press conference here in the UK last week in which the advice of the WHO was dismissed because their advice had to take into account developing countries whose health systems were not the match of our own. We know, of course, that even well-developed health care systems such as that in the north of Italy, can easily be overwhelmed, which left an uneasy taste of condescension to the comment from our UK representative in the press conference. I heard the message, "We know better than the World Health Organisation!"

It was heartening to see the BBC’s Newsnight host Emily Matilis telling some difficult truths about the nonsense that the Covid-19 is the great leveller, and that we are all going through this together. We are not. The poor will suffer disproportionately as a result of this pandemic, not just as a result of the infection itself but in the economic recession that will follow, through jobs lost, financial hardship and the mental toll that will bring on people’s well-being.

God asks, ‘Who will go for me?
Who will extend my reach?
And who, when few will listen,
will prophesy and preach?
And who, when few bid welcome,
will offer all they know?
And who, when few dare follow,
will walk the road I show?’

I have had numerous comments from folks in the community thanking us, as a congregation, for being so quick to respond with our efforts to support the community and help to organise our response to support the more vulnerable in our community. Truth be told, all along I have been wishing it had been started a fortnight earlier and I have been cursing myself for not having acted sooner. But we have done, as a community, the best we can to build a team of volunteers to help each other over the next months. That is a good thing and the response has been an uplifting joy in a time of considerable darkness and worry. As I write, over 120 folks have offered their assistance and we are distributing out requests for help as they come in to those volunteers.

We are being relied upon, as are groups across the nation, to be part of the frontline in these months, knowing our own communities, and able to respond quickly as required. That we will do, of course, because it is the right thing to do. It is to show love to our neighbours.

But while we do that, I cannot shake from my mind that the last decade has seen resilience in local communities decimated by lack of funding, has seen health systems cut to the bone, has seen so many people in professions that serve their communities, such as teachers, labelled as greedy for just wanting a fair wage for the hours they put in. You see, those who are in positions of power rely on the good nature of so many people who do feel a calling to serve their communities to do so without proper recompense or appreciation.

While I have been out clapping on Thursday nights at 8 p.m. for those who are serving our country in this pandemic, what has been going through my mind is “yes, I appreciate them, I clap for them, but I want them to be properly resourced and funded too”. That is in the hands of politicians should they wish to put into real actions their professed support for those whom they applaud in television promotional slots on the news.

We do our bit, yes, but we also must demand that our elected leaders do their bit too: walking the road they claim to follow.

Amused in someone’s kitchen,
asleep in someone’s boat,
attuned to what the ancients
exposed, proclaimed, and wrote,
a saviour without safety,
a tradesman without tools
has come to tip the balance
with fishermen and fools.

Perhaps we are foolish for expecting too much from the likes of Johnson, whose record is one of that extraordinary white man privilege of failing upwards, getting fired from one job just to fall into another better job, and so on. But keeping an honest outlook on what is happening in a time of true crisis which affects us all, if unevenly, is essential.

Jesus worked in the context of Empire and powerful leaders with massive vested interests. He taught about a different outlook on life from that of Empire and the unquestioned power of the few, and fearlessly exposed the hypocrisy around him.

I am very thankful for those journalists and experts who are keeping track of what is happening in these fast moving times, and are seeking to break through the false narratives and spin to talk about what is happening. To cut through the crap, do listen to the WHO press conferences and find people with real expertise in the subject matter to inform yourself.

A new and very helpful online conversation began last week, and I hope there are more to come:

At the moment it is not clear that the UK Government has a clear strategy to get us out of the mess we are now in. The answer as experts in epidemiology, public health and bodies such as the WHO point out is that you have to do a combination of many different things to work your way out of a pandemic amongst which are very important elements such as as testing, quarantining, and contact tracing that we seem to have given up on. Without these we do not know where the virus is, who has it, and how prevalent it is in any given area. Without that information we are flying blind and cannot sensibly identify areas where restrictions can be relaxed. It looks like we are playing with technology with various apps in progress which can be part of this answer, but the experience of other nations is that this has to be combined with people on the ground who test people, who keep in touch with them, and who do the investigative work to trace all the contacts that infected people have had in the previous days during which time they were contagious.

Without these elements in place, starting to relax restrictions would be as ridiculous as relying on herd immunity without a vaccine. So we need to watch this space.

And that is enough from me. I was inspired by both love and anger to vent what has been building up for some weeks now. These are, I point out, my own thoughts and concerns.

Keep safe, everyone, keep well, and keep vigilant.