NHS Heroes and the Kindness Pandemic

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It’s 8pm on Thursday night and the sound of palms slapping and utensils banging ricochet down the street as my neighbours and I gather on our doorsteps once again to ‘clap for carers’. Nearly two months into lockdown this weekly salute to the health and social care heroes of the pandemic is still going strong – saucepans of England have never seen so much action and key workers have never been held in such high esteem.

I love the NHS. I love Social Services. I love charities and the public sector, and I’ve worked within all three for several years now. Am I a hero? A cape-clad, superhuman vigilante for social justice, support for the vulnerable and saintliness? Or do I just know something that the public at large has finally grasped during this time of uncertainty and isolation? Something that key workers across the world have known for a very long time. That kindness is happiness.

Three months ago ‘lockdown’ was something that only happened at secret nuclear facilities or when the pretty one in Prison Break sparked an inmate riot. But in a matter of weeks Coronavirus ripped across the planet plunging populations into a state of public crisis and economic turmoil, and as people lost their lives, jobs, and vague sense of normality overnight we saw a war-time-esque outpouring of community spirit as voluntary groups and isolation support initiatives popped up in their thousands across the globe.

The urge to help vulnerable people spread like wildfire across communities and it seems no person in isolation has been left without countless offers of voluntary support with shopping, prescriptions or a friendly chat.

People are discovering that being a good citizen actually feels pretty great. We’re in a kindness pandemic – and compassion has never been so cool.

The question we’re asking on the NHS wellbeing and community development service I work on, is once the world begins turning again, how can we keep the benevolence momentum going? Back in January local charities where I live in Berkshire were struggling like never before with dwindling volunteer numbers and funding cuts – services were literally shutting down and the community was suffering. Two months later one local befriending service had received over 1,000 volunteer applications from people desperate to step up and help those in need. There are now a phenomenal 750,000 people signed up to the national GoodSam NHS Responder scheme.

Where did they come from and how can we keep them? Many of the Covid-19 response volunteers I’ve spoken to admit originally stepping forwards out of a sense of duty, however several weeks into their support roles and hours spent helping the elderly, sick, homeless and generally vulnerable it’s not a grudging sense of civic responsibility that’s keeping them going – but the immense sense of satisfaction and wellbeing that’s coming from helping others.

Anyone risking their life on the frontline of this pandemic basically deserves a sainthood. But the little-known secret that the key workers we’ve been clapping and painting rainbows for across the nation already know is that having a social purpose feels amazing. That devoting your time to being a decent human and ‘not a dick’ is a magical thing that can have a positive ripple effect across your entire life. Hopefully when all this is over, we won’t forget that.

You don’t have to be a hero or undergo great suffering to reap the rewards that kindness can bring – any small piece of compassion is clap-worthy.

My choice to work in health and social care isn’t one of sacrifice, woe and self-flagellation – my job is satisfying, varied and ultimately fun. I get to help vulnerable people better their circumstances while listening to their incredible stories and getting out and about in the community. I’ve also been yelled at by stressed-out doctors, attacked by a patient’s deranged cat and once walked into a meeting full of important commissioners with my skirt on backwards. It’s not perfect and the work can be tough – but generally I feel privileged to have a job that allows me to feel good about myself, and is never, ever boring.

If it takes a pandemic to shake our communities into weaving compassion into the daily fabric of life then so be it – and long may it continue. And if standing in the road whacking a cheese grater on a Thursday evening helps people to feel good by then I’m all for it.

But you don’t have to call us heroes. We’re here because we want to be.

Post Election Blues – the Revolution Will Not be Retweeted

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Almost a month ago now here in fair Blighty queues were formed, poll papers shuffled and boxes dutifully crossed. The general election 2015 ran its course and the Conservative party came to power once again. The people had spoken.

Well, some of them anyway.

Sixty-six per cent of the voting-aged UK general public cast votes on May 7 – and only 36.9 per cent of these people voted for the Tories, thus making their majority win slimmer than Posh Spice on Atkins. Ukip, the Green Party, and the Liberal Democrats all won 12 per cent, 8 per cent and 4 per cent of votes respectively – but none ended up with much more than 1 per cent of the seats. The Conservatives still managed to claim over half of the seats, and sole occupancy of Downing Street.

It was electile dysfunction at it’s finest.

Unsurprisingly, the left-wing masses are unsettled – the UK has seen widespread protest against the Conservative win, and a renewed cry to change the voting system and bring in proportional representation. Many are numb with shock and fear in the face of five more years of public service cuts.

I have to wonder, though, if the deluge of negativity and pessimism from lefties nationwide these last few weeks has been particularly helpful?

Suddenly my Facebook feed is crammed with political experts. The plethora of opinions on why the Tories are wrong/evil/misguided is vast and extraordinarily detailed. My friends have put a lot of time into their diatribes against the state – and, frankly, the constant stream of negativity and complaining is starting to get on my nerves. I’m worried too – the prospect of leaving the EU, losing the Human Rights Act and an even bigger gulf in the rich-poor divide saddens and terrifies me. But I’m painfully aware that whinging about it isn’t going to make a shred of difference. The cuts are coming.

I love an angry blog and a protest march as much as the next person, but we need to ask ourselves – is it really enough? (* types away at blog and tries to ignore glaring irony *) Some of the shoutiest of my friends and family are, absurdly, the ones who seem to be the least involved in any kind of social outreach, community engagement or charitable pursuit. What use is armchair activism if it isn’t followed up with, you know, activity? Social media is a fantastic mechanism for sparking debate and sharing opinions but at some point you have to actually leave the house, and take action outside of cyberspace.

So let’s see this month’s election results as a call to arms, not license to whine. Charities and social enterprises plug the holes that public services don’t have the resources to fill – and we need to be out there helping them through volunteering, fundraising and campaigning, instead of sitting behind our computer screens reposting articles about how the Tories boil cats for fun.

Engaging with the outside world through volunteering is actually proven to help alleviate depression and stress – so how about offsetting those post election blues with a few hours work at your local children’s centre?

I won’t pretend the future doesn’t look bleak for the disadvantaged and vulnerable of Britain. Throughout my struggles with chronic illness and depression I’ve always had the most incredible back up from my wonderful network of family and close friends. I doubt I would have made it even half this far without their support. So when I think about the many mentally ill or physically impaired human beings that I share this little island with, who don’t necessarily benefit from a close-knit community of loved ones, I’m at a loss as to how they’re going to get the help they need as government welfare makes a hasty retreat.

So instead of instagramming pictures of Boris Johnson’s face photoshopped onto a llama, let’s try to salvage something positive from the rubble that is British politics today – and do what we can to make the little spaces we occupy in the world better, fairer and more inclusive for everyone around us. David Cameron’s so-called Big Society has to start somewhere – let’s make it our own doorsteps.