Is it possible to write about Dominic Cummings and Intelligent Kindness in the same blog? I’m going to give it a try.
First, I have a huge amount of sympathy for an overworked harassed man whose wife contacts him to say she feels so ill she can’t look after their four year old. The situation reminds me of a very stressful time in my own life when I became ill with Hepatitis A after giving birth to my second child. She was six weeks old and her older sister was three when I started throwing up and spiking a high temperature with muscle pain, nausea, abdominal pain and rigors. After a few days of this, I noticed my urine was black and my skin was turning yellow and the diagnosis was duly made. Hepatitis A is sometimes called Infectious Hepatitis or, what we referred to as children as Yellow Jaundice. It is an infectious disease now rare in the UK but still common in poorer countries. How I caught this horrid disease was a mystery at the time, but public health became involved and did some good old-fashioned track and tracing. (In the intervening years, it has been shown that women who have just had babies are particularly susceptible) Rather like Covid-19, children tend to get a very mild version of the illness, but adults suffer extremely unpleasant acute symptoms ( again science has moved on in the intervening years, and an injection of immunoglobulin that lessens the severity of symptoms would now be given). Because of its high infectivity, my little family had to lock-down and, sure enough, my eldest daughter and husband came out with symptoms a few days after me.
All this is to say that I can well understand a parent’s panic at feeling too ill to properly look after a young child. In my case, all our carefully made plans to keep my eldest’s routines going, nursery and outings to friends, sets of grandparents to visit, collapsed completely. We were on our own with a hungry baby and an unwell, yellow-skinned, somewhat jealous sibling. I have a haunting memory of one afternoon, my husband puking in the toilet, the baby crying in her Moses basket, whilst I lay on the bed, just feeling too ill to pick her up. Clearly Dominic Cummings and his wife, Mary, felt like this at times whilst they had Covid-19, and they have my genuine sympathy, as do all the other parents battling with this illness whilst they try to look after their needy children. It was a shocking feeling: that sense of being taken-over by something completely out my control at the same time as the appalling comprehension dawned that no matter how bad I felt, it was up to me to muster the energy to look after my very young and vulnerable dependents. I remember yearning for my parents to magically appear and make it all right, so can understand the rather irrational decision that Cummings made to embark on that long drive to Durham. Presumably the virus was already incubating and possibly effecting his judgement.
For Cummings, there seems to be little distinction between subjective and objective reasoning. In the lush surroundings of the prime-minister’s garden, he took us through his rationale, slick and well presented: he made a difficult choice in a complex situation. So no matter how the exposure of his trip has reflected on the Government he works for; no matter how it has effected everyone else’s feelings about lock-down and how this may play out in people’s behaviour and the course of this pandemic; no matter that his impulsive choice to travel across the country has seriously weakened our willingness to make individual sacrifices for the sake of the collective. He is sure of his rationale and this far outweighs any murmurings about the unintended impact of his choices. He can argue the reasons for his actions, so none of the fall out has any significance. Put another way, his capacity to judge himself from the outside seems to be lacking.
But before I get more critical, let’s get back to kindness and the closely linked concept of kinship. Now, more than ever, we need people to hold together as a community. We need to remember that we are dependent on each other, and that, like it or not, we are the co-creators of our future. We are faced with making decisions where the risk is relatively low for us as individuals, but will very easily multiply and become more of a risk if we all ease up on the rules. Despite Mr Cumming’s example and the prime-minister’s support for him, we need to think more than ever about the community as a whole, and the collective impact of our individual decisions.