Blog Number 21 [Friday 8th May]
Today is a special day. Yes, it is the 75th anniversary of VE Day. I think you might have noticed that. The 8thMay is also my mother’s birthday. Or was. She would be 112 today, Leon tells us in the course of a tripartite sibling Zoom yesterday. Evelyn and I are not as impressed by the statistic as Leon is, but then he’s a mathematician. She died in January 1992 at the age of 83, a miserable death in a care home after debilitating months of pain and misery. She had made it clear she didn’t want that. What she wanted was someone to give her an injection so she might die in comfort. If she had been in her own flat, her GP told us after her death, I could have helped. I can do nothing in a nursing home, she said. My mother suffered cruelly and unnecessarily. We willingly put our pets out of their misery when they are near death. But do not accord the same sort of compassion to our own species.
The debate over assisted dying is on hold, like everything else. Lockdown applies not just to people but to life as it was. We wait until it is all over, but no one knows when that will be or even what that means. And now there is a horrific form of ‘assisted’ dying going on as the virus runs rife through hospitals and care homes. In the litany of this government’s incompetencies and fiascos, the failure to protect staff and patients in care homes from COVID-19 must rank near the top. In an FT article Tim sent me, Professor Richard Coker, an epidemiologist, showed how the Government failed to protect care home residents as they pursued the ‘herd immunity’ policy. Predictably, this would result in increased deaths above and beyond normal, or “harvesting” as it is called in the trade, rather too evocatively. Here is his summary of how it all went so wrong.
If herd immunity was the initial strategy outlined by advisers, they would have known that harvesting older people could not be part of the equation. This isn’t about science or politics – it’s a simple question of humanity. If the government’s strategy was to allow the virus to spread through the wider population, albeit at a slowed pace, residents in nursing homes would need to be protected.
But this is not what happened. The initial strategy of allowing herd immunity to develop in the wider community was pursued, but the most vulnerable people were not protected. Though harvesting may not have been the government’s intention, it became the de facto policy in the absence of adequate protections for older and vulnerable people. Had the government monitored care homes, supplied adequate PPE, rolled out testing in care homes, and reduced the exposure of their residents to visitors and other carers, the islands of vulnerable and elderly people would have been protected.
The irony of today’s celebrations is that many of the people who were actually there 75 years ago have been abandoned by their government. Many have died, some in terrible suffering. Keir Starmer made that point in his calm, lawyerly fashion to the Prime Minister at PMQs. Typically, Boris had nothing to offer beyond rhetoric and bluster. People are beginning to tire of rhetoric, of being told one thing and finding the truth to be quite another. Matt Hancock’s bravura claim that 122,000 people had been tested on April 30th proved a mirage [a lie, not to mince words]. Over 30,000 of those tests had only just been sent to people; none had come back. Through the first week of May the real figures came in, hovering around 80,000, confirming the data massaging he had done. Why? Why set a target of 100,000 tests? Why pretend that you have hit it when it will become almost immediately obvious you haven’t? Why treat the public like fools and idiots? All it does is further undermine what little trust remains in this benighted government.
VE Day 1945
I asked my sister Evelyn what she remembered of VE Day. She was 11 at the time. She had no memory of it at all, she said. She didn’t know if they got a day off school or what our parents had done. She worried about the loss of cognitive function that this implies, but it is what happens as we get older. No consolation in that though. I am sure my parents would have celebrated Germany’s surrender, the end of the war in Europe, the defeat of the fascism they detested. Did they retain any residual patriotism for the country they had left 12 years before? When I was growing up, they rarely spoke about Germany. I recall no reminiscences, not until much later in her life when my mother told me of the terrible years of poverty and anxiety after the First World War. I cannot recall a single positive comment or any happy stories about their early life. Very likely I showed no interest. I was an adolescent after all and what was there beyond my wonderful life? I wonder if they had deliberately erased Germany from their experience. Perhaps many immigrants do that, especially when the country they came from fought a long and terrible war with the one that has adopted you
I have mixed feeling about the VE Day celebrations. I delight in seeing the joyous excited dancing in the black-and-white film footage of the time. I love the story of Humphrey Lyttleton playing ‘Roll Out the Barrel’ on his trumpet, which the BBC coverage picked up. With some pride Humph said when he heard it, he knew it was him by the Louis Armstrong flourish at the end. The sheer relief at the end of the horrors is evident. The war was not over for all. People knew that. Churchill said it in his broadcast. Yet all that could be put aside for the joy of the moment. And now? Like on every Remembrance Day when the politicians intone their clichéd words about the sacrifice so many made, I wonder about what people really feel. Not the veterans marching in step down Whitehall, those who lived through it and lost friends and saw awful carnage. Their feelings are undoubtedly real even as they are complicated and personal, feelings I can only guess at and never truly feel in the way they do. What are people feeling about an event that occurred before most of them were born? What are we celebrating?
Orwell, in his famous essay, The Lion and the Unicorn, written in 1940 when, as he wryly observed, “highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me,” drew a distinction between patriotism and nationalism. I wrestled with this in one of the letters I wrote to my grandchildren, see http://johnmarzillier.co.uk/essays/patriotism/ Orwell stated that patriotism, unlike nationalism which he saw as self-serving and self-glorifying, was a positive force “and there is nothing to set beside it.” What he meant by patriotism is the emotional sense of belonging to your country, of being part of something bigger than yourself, sharing it with others around you, rather like we are experiencing in the lockdown. A sense of community. This is a positive force but it can easily be harnessed into something nasty as it was, I believe, by the hard-line Brexiters and by English exceptionalists who seem to be desperate to believe that England, and I mean England not Britain, is superior to every other country.
“Two World Wars and one World Cup” is a football chant you might hear if England are playing Germany. In case you don’t know it, Germany has won the World Cup four times. A friend asked me once if I supported Germany. “No,” I replied in amazement. Unlike Richard who supports Wales, Bob who supports Scotland, and Paddy who supports Ireland, I feel no affinity with another country, not with Germany, the country of my ancestors. The patriotism I feel is entirely English. Why then do I not feel patriotic on VE Day? Perhaps because I recoil from any tinge of English exceptionalism, the blinkered notion that we won the war. England did not win the war. Britain didn’t either. The war was won by the Allied Forces and with the help of people from many other countries around the world, countries Britain had ruthlessly colonised and exploited. I have the same reaction to Farage and his gang of crooks who played upon patriotic feelings to take us out of the EU, a singularly stupid act in today’s globalised world. There’s another reason. VE Day is a celebration of a moment of peace not peacetime. It’s the peace that followed five years of horrific warfare during which all sides committed atrocities. Now the rhetoric of war has infused the media’s response to the pandemic. People battleagainst the disease. Our careworkers are on the frontline. They make the ultimate sacrifice when they succumb to the illness. A virus is not the enemy. And it is not a war we are fighting. Viruses are simply facts of nature. How we deal with COVID-19 is nothing to do with fighting or patriotism but with basic competence and common humanity, both of which have been sorely lacking in those who are governing us. Let us leave war out of the discourse. On VE Day I join in commemorating the ending of a terrible war that destroyed many lives worldwide. On a future 8th May, or its equivalent, I hope there will be a ceremony to remember those who died during this pandemic, many in suffering, many alone, and many who would not have died had the government acted swiftly and sensibly to protect those who most needed it.
Since the above is a polemic, here’s the wonderful Monty Python argument sketch with Eric Idle and John Cleese.