THE LAST YEAR and more has been a time of loss for hundreds of millions the world over. For many of us, the things we’d rather not think about have become inescapable.
The youngest and healthiest parts of the population have been forced to reckon with the frailty and mortality of the social whole, and have often sacrificed the much-celebrated freedoms of liberal society. Rarely since the second world war – though the nuclear bomb scares of the Cold War may be one of the exceptions – has western youth been made so intimate with death.
Like many others, I’ve had cause to think about my own deceased relatives more than at perhaps any other time in my life, including times closer to the awful moment of loss itself, when the enormity of what has happened resists full acknowledgement. My ancestors have visited my hyper-vivid lockdown dreams time and again. I’m sure others reading this have had similar experiences.
An old man died on 9 April. Philip Mountbatten was 99, and had been active till almost the end of his life. Comparative to most others, that life was one of privilege and comfort, and this extended into his later years, which for many – far too many – are a time of poverty.
Thomas Rainsborough, one of the great leaders of the English Revolution, monarchist and early advocate of the vote, once said: “I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he.” If we can assume this works both ways, Philip had a life to live just as we do, and its end is painful for those he leaves behind.
But Rainsborough was right: we have lives to live as the greatest. So as the bizarre week-plus of mourning comes to an end, lets assert the rights of the vast majority to dignity in life, and solidarity in loss. What is good for one privileged man is good for the rest of us.
Or rather, it is not. In 2020, the Coronavirus ripped through Scottish care homes, resulting in infection rates as high as 73 per cent in some of them, coupled with an appalling mortality rate. A sector known for low pay and bad conditions became a deathtrap for thousands of Scots who helped build our modern society.
The cause was a mix of profiteering corporate owners, and a negligent political class. Last week (8 April), Jeane Freeman admitted: “We didn’t take the right precautions to make sure that older people leaving hospital going into care homes were as safe as they could be and that was a mistake.”
More than 1,300 elderly people were discharged from hospital into care homes in the opening phase of the pandemic, with inevitable consequences. In addition, care home staff were bussed-in from as far afield as Kent in order to service rising ‘demand’ (people) in the sector. The system was, then, breached at both ends to empty beds from funds-starved hospitals, and supply cheap and low-conditions labour.
What was the media’s response? There have been no high-profile political causalities. And whatever the degree of coverage, it could never have reached last week’s levels of wrap-around, sepia-tinged reminiscences of the Duke of Edinburgh’s life. As it happens, the story seems to have died on the vine.
Is it an issue in the present Scottish elections? Some parties, including the SNP, have announced plans for a National Care Service. In its manifesto, the SNP says this new institution will emerge from general funding for care services in Scotland, which they have pledged to increase by a substantial 25 per cent. But how much of this will be pumped back into corporate providers, rather than into a really new approach to care?
Like a lot of other ‘National’ policy schemes that sound terribly muscular by virtue of having capital N ‘National’ in their name, we’ll need to see the finished article (and like a lot of other Scottish Government reforms of this kind, it may be a long time in the making). At least there are signs of a recognition that everything will need to change in coming decades if we are to deal with the realities of an ageing population.
Europe is ageing rapidly. Not only is this generating corporate exploitation, but it is driving millions of carers – mostly women – deeper into poverty and desperation. In the UK alone, there are 1.25 million so-called ‘sandwich carers’ who care both for the young and elderly. Almost half of full-time carers and also full-time wage workers. A socialisation of care is required, one that trains and pays people to care. This requires a cultural shift – which exalts care rather than treating it as something that should go unseen, unheard and unremunerated. There needs to be a cultural expectation that men and women, younger and older generations share in this effort. Disability and old age cannot continue to be viewed with disgust or shame.
The expectation must also be that the rich will have to pay for this. It is, after all, the system of wage labour from which they profit that creates the fundamental need for care, and without a world of unpaid care they would have nothing.
We are some way from such a reckoning. But until our people share the grace with which a Mountbatten or a Windsor is sent from the scene, we need to keep insisting that we have a life to live – and a dignified death to die, too.