Coronavirus – did we set the wrong priorities?

I am continuing to think about how we have done so far during the coronavirus pandemic. As I said in an earlier post, one measure of this is how we are doing against the objectives the Government set out. However, we should also step back and ask whether those were the right objectives. 

One issue is that alongside the objectives that were explicitly there, are those that were implicitly there because they are such an obvious part of what we should be doing as a country. Two good examples of this are

  1. To be able to return the country to normal life as soon as possible.
  2. To specifically protect the most vulnerable among us.

The first is obvious because we are aware that the virus is not the only danger people face. There are other health dangers and included within this is the risk to emotional health. The longer that a shutdown goes on, the greater the negative impact as people become increasingly fearful and isolated. This leads to economic damage too and economic damage in turn affects the physical and emotional well-being of people.

That this was an implicit objective was also obvious in the optimistic language used by the government at the start of the pandemic. We were promised that if we came together for 2 or 3 months and put up with the inconvenience of lockdown then by the summer things would get back to normal and the virus would be licked.  Yet here we are as summer roles on and the virus is still with us, life is a long way off from normal.  So, on this measure, we are not doing at all well.

The second is the mark of a healthy society. It should be in our gut instinct.  Yet here we are in a situation where a high proportion of deaths happened in Care Homes.  How did that happen? Well it seems that elderly patients were being returned to the care home from hospital without being tested for the virus.  There were two linked reasons for this. The first was that we had not realised the potential impact from asymptomatic carriers of the disease. The second was that our primary objective was to protect the NHS, to put up a human shield around it to ensure that it did not become overwhelmed by a surge in cases of the illness.

The assumption seemed to be that we could not stop people from becoming seriously ill with the virus and therefore we needed to protect the NHS so that it could treat them when they did.  The problem with that is that we end up with a situation where our whole focus is on protecting the abstract entity instead of people. Even the language was awful. Why were we being asked to create a human shield to protect the very thing that was meant to protect us?  Imagine a knight in battle being asked to take off his armour and stand in front of it to protect it from damage.

CS Lewis talked about first and second things. He said that we often put things that are of second importance first and first things second. When we do this, we end up losing both. He said that if you wanted to protect the second order priority then you needed to keep the first order priority first.  I wonder if we have been at risk of putting the second order priority (protect NHS capacity) first and the first order priority (protect the vulnerable) second. Yet if we had said that our first priority was to shield the most vulnerable and that we would do everything to protect them, this in itself would have helped to protect NHS capacity.

Here as well, we see another risk. I personally am a fan of our health-care system.  I think the principle of “free at the point of need” is brilliant.  I have personally benefited from this.  However, at times we risk personifying the NHS and  not only that but we idolise this national treasure. This leas to a situation where we are asked to make sacrifices for it.  Remember, false gods, idols depend on us to provide for and protect them. The true, living God provides for us and protects us. We need to get back to a situation were the benefits of the NHS are recognised but to protect the NHS, we need to make sure that we do not put it as the first priority. If we want a good quality healthcare service, we need to treat it as that and not as a national religion.

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