Last week we held a virtual family bake-off to celebrate my grand-daughter, Poppy’s first birthday. A lovely occasion but the context made it poignant. I would give a lot to have her warm little body cuddled-up in my lap, or play ‘this little piggy went to market’ with her tiny toes, or feel the triumphant joy resonate through her body as she toddles across the room into my arms and hits a high five. I’m resigning myself to that not happening for a few more weeks but I feel bereft at the thought. There is something delightful about the way my grandparent peer group have overcome their difficulties with digital technology in order to keep contact with their grandchildren, reading bedtime stories, playing interactive games, giving them art and cookery lessons, even supervising violin practice.
But what is a one year old making of all this? We wondered about meeting for a walk halfway between our two locations, but leaving aside whether this would actually be contraindicated by the guide-lines, the thought of meeting up and not being able to get close to Poppy, felt just too upsetting. What message would it give her? What sense could she possibly make of it? When I first started calling her on Whats App, she would give me an ecstatic welcoming smile, shortly followed by a look of bemusement as she turned the phone over to see if I was hiding inside it! Now a month or two older, my appearing on a screen has become part of life, and she sits happily for a good fifteen minutes, whilst I do my ‘Watch With Mother’ act, and her Mum rushes around cleaning the kitchen. (For younger readers, Watch With Mother was the first BBC television program for nursery aged children, still remembered as a very exciting novel event by my generation!)
Like many people, I was disappointed – although not surprised – by the changed message and the lack of clarity and thoughtfulness in the prime minister’s speech on Sunday night and the follow-up communications the next day. I would have gone for honest, stern and hopeful about the future – what the psychoanalyst within me thinks of as the zero tolerance depressive position. The point is that hopeful doesn’t really work unless there is evidence that a realistic appraisal of the present situation is being confronted.
Leaving aside the shaky policy shift, I find it extraordinary that with so many advisors to help, Johnson and Hancock repeatedly get the tone so wrong. Is there not a process where the impact of such an important communication on different groups of the population is imagined? Surely someone around them should have realised that giving the go-ahead to welcome cleaners and childminders back into our homes, whilst forbidding this to family members, would be a ‘red rag’ for many of us? Is there no-one to suggest that some acknowledgement of the pain of separation and other distressing feelings, might be reassuring, even if nothing can be done to relieve this for a few more weeks? In short, is there no one helping them with empathy?
We need more than smart suits and repetitive fist clenching. (Even Poppy gets the giggles when Boris makes a speech!) It’s all very well to use war metaphors occasionally but most of us don’t feel like heroes at this point in time; and appeals to “good old-fashioned British common-sense” ignore the fact that this invisible virus is the most counter-intuitive enemy. Even those who like the idea of being heroic must be finding that hard to sustain as we come to terms with the shameful neglect of our country’s care home residents and UK statistics show our fight to stamp out this “devilish virus” rather unsuccessful compared to other countries. Greece, for example, is now more or less back to normal. It is preparing to welcome holiday makers from a range of northern European countries, but is specific about excluding tourists from the worst five Covid-19 countries, including the UK. Rather than heroic, a lot of people are feeling miserable, weary, irritable and increasingly lonely. As their hopes for the summer waver, they are wary of a second surge in cases and anxious about the long-term future.
Is it too much to hope that our leaders might try to speak to some of these feelings? Of course there is an urgent need to get people back to work and restart the economy as soon as it is safe to do so; but why not a focus on the emotional cost of what is happening and an awareness of the relationships that matter most to people? Such a focus would encourage a sense of kinship, and the mutual attentiveness and trust that has the potential to bind us together and promote social cohesion. Co-operation – indeed “staying alert” and “common sense” – are more likely if people feel their experience is being understood and acknowledged.