I am because we are

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Warm weather this week means the government is telling us to stay in. Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer has resigned because she didn’t. And then the Queen spoke.

Despite the detached weirdness of working remotely in lockdown, there are elements about it I’ve secretly enjoyed. In our whirlwind world there is something attractive about being solitary and secluded for a time – like a snow-day, when the world sleeps. It creates a pause. And for a pause to do its reflective work (see More than I Expected) we require a degree of disconnection from the everyday.

But what’s different in lockdown is that our choice to be alone has been ripped away. And lack of choice makes us less in control. When you aren’t sure where you can find bread, making decisions about children’s studies or bedtimes quickly go out the window. Tell me the days, weeks and months ahead and I can plan a rough family schedule. But with no deadline in sight, even the most military routine starts to crumble.

Part of the problem is knowing where we fit in. Workplaces give us direction and sense of teamwork, whereas remote working dilutes this. And at a national stage it’s easy to feel helpless – unless perhaps we are part of Team NHS.

It seems like we are all in one of two camps:

Camp One is simply all those who make up the medical teams and those supporting key workers – those working in hospital, researching in labs, designing ventilators, designing drugs, making masks, running schools, teaching children of key workers, getting food and essentials onto supermarket shelves.

Camp Two is the rest of us, and that’s most of us. And our role, alongside keeping the economy going as best we can through home-working is to do anything and everything which will help Camp One do their job well, and create space and time for them to do it. Camp Two will flatten the curve if we separate ourselves and follow the strict rules of lockdown and social distancing. If we don’t then we become part of the problem and we risk the NHS. Worse, we threaten lives.

This is hard because it is not exciting. Although we are waging a war against an invisible enemy, it doesn’t feel like it, in our warm homes with our loved ones, wrestling with routine. Creating a cooking rota, keeping the arguments down to a minimum and working out how to teach simultaneous equations to our kids while wishing we’d listened harder in school. It would be a lot easier if it felt like we were in battle: pointing a gun from a trench, piloting a Spitfire, code-breaking at Bletchley Park.

But our struggles with our partners, our frustrations with children, our anxiety about infection – well these are the national struggles for all of us in Camp Two. Nurses and doctors all signed up to the same two promises: the Hippocratic oath (do no harm) and “Beneficence” (do good).

Camp Twos didn’t sign up to anything, but make no mistake, our role has changed.

It’s difficult and frustrating, but let’s remember we aren’t facing the dangers of Camp Ones, and there are Camp Twos much more at risk. For children stuck in homes for long periods with people who respond to lockdown with menace or violence, well they definitely didn’t sign up to it either.

We can’t make ourselves any more Camp Two than we already are. But we can understand what we are and what we are here to do in this crisis. All the tiny sacrifices: the moment we choose not to step outside, the way we line up on the supermarket car park, the 20th time we wash our hands today.  Just when we are getting tired of it all is probably just when it is when it’s making all the difference.

In ‘Stand Up Straight’ Major General Paul Nanson describes this difference:

“The British Army is made up of teams and, within each of these teams, every person has a role. A tank cannot move without a driver, nor can it fire without a gunner or load without an operator, and a tank can’t do any of those things without a commander. The sum of the collective effort is greater than the sum of the individual parts.”

Our collective routines, carried out daily, are what will make the difference. They will flatten the curve, prevent hysteria. They will Keep Britain Calm and Carry On.

So the sacrifice is different for all of us. This pandemic has upended so many of our expectations of what bravery looks like. It isn’t one moment of medal-winning courage in 4 years of war. It feels more like sitting around in trenches, being disciplined about the basics. But remember those fighting in war worked hard to simply survive and carried out the daily essentials too: massaging and bandaging their feet each night to eliminate trenchfoot which itself killed 75,000 British soldiers in WW1.

Last week Boris Johnson misquoted Margaret Thatcher’s infamous words: “there is no thing such as society.”

When we stand outside our doors awkwardly applauding the NHS, in a surreal but beautiful way we remind ourselves how much we value the power of British society. Together we express that African concept of Ubuntu: ‘I am because we are.’

Queen Elizabeth stepped in on the day that Johnson went into hospital struck down with the virus, and she made it personal. It became about her, her country, all of us:

While we may have more still to ensure, better days will return; we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again.”

Her Churchillian rhetoric reminds us of the story ahead. Actors distinguish between ‘action’ and ‘activity’. The key action creates the story. It changes our understanding and changes how the story plays out. Activity is just busyness. Most of our lives we are busy with activity. But right now we are involved in action. We know what “killed in action” means. We are less familiar with the idea that how we behave during “inaction” will save lives.

Our inaction will change the story, change history. I am because we are. Camp Two: that’s most of us – let’s be it.

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