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2 September 2021

Christie Watson’s Diary: Paralympian role models, the crisis in nursing and the farce of political hindsight

The government's paltry 3 per cent pay rise for NHS nurses is an insult to a profession who remind us that when we feel most alone, we are not alone at all.

By Christie Watson

Great Britain won a total of 65 medals at Tokyo 2020 and now there is much-needed optimism, even pride, in the air. Watching the ­Paralympics fills me with awe. A spectator-free Paralympics does nothing to dull the incredible human spirit of these athletes; perhaps even amplifies it.

I accompany my niece to a swimming lesson and it feels hopeful that young girls like her have role models such as Hannah Cockroft, Sky Brown, Kadeena Cox and Alice Dearing. As the children are lined up pool-side and the swimming teacher is demonstrating front crawl one small girl runs towards the deep end, after a ball. A flash of panic cuts through the smell of chlorine. The lifeguard, swimming teacher and the child’s parents rush over. All eyes are on the ball and the girl running after it. But at the other end of the pool, a little boy runs, slips and silently falls into the water. He is face down and flailing. Someone sees him, jumps in and pulls him out in the nick of time.

Have we run out of time? Everyone’s eyes have been on Covid, yet climate change is described as “code red” for humanity. The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report says that “it is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the ­atmosphere, ocean and land”. The apocalyptic images of hurricanes and wildfires sit uncomfortably next to pictures on social media of “amber list” holidaymakers drinking cocktails. Countries such as the Maldives have been described as “on the edge of extinction”. I keep thinking of the 1998 disaster film Deep Impact, in which Morgan Freeman plays the US president, who tells the public: “Life will go on. We will prevail.”

We are, it seems, facing an extinction-level event. Yet many of us are ignoring the news and mourning the end of Love Island instead. Elif Shafak describes apathy as one of the most dangerous feelings. We need to ­remember how to feel and our incredible human spirit. Our survival ­depends on it.

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As my daughter ­prepares to start sixth form, my dog, my daughter and I all start our periods at the same time. The stress levels should be high, but everything feels eerily calm. Home-schooling during the pandemic has been disrupted, bitty and at times incoherent; it’s been a nightmare.

As an aspiring dancer who has spent 18 months trying to practise in her cramped bedroom via Zoom lessons, my daughter’s lifelong dreams have slipped slowly away. She is strangely relaxed, however, almost nonchalant. She shrugs. “The Secretary of State for Education couldn’t even remember his A-level results,” she points out. “Why worry about anything any more? We will have destroyed our planet in 20 years at this rate. The entire human race will be extinct.”

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My grandmother recently turned 93. She was left with disabilities after a hip replacement and has been housebound on her own since the beginning of the pandemic. Still, the district nurses have been visiting her throughout the crisis, providing expert care, comfort and even love. Nurses cobweb around our country working in schools, ­prisons, care homes, in clinics, homes, hospices and every place you can imagine. Nurses everywhere remind us that when we feel most alone, we are not alone at all. We will all need nursing at some point in our lives and yet safety-critical, rigorously trained, registered nurses remain, even now, undervalued, underpaid and overworked by our government.

After originally suggesting a 1 per cent pay rise for nurses, the government has gone up to 3 per cent. This equates to a pay cut for nurses in real terms. My grandmother has a way with words: “Boris Johnson and the rest of them should all be f***ing sacked.”

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Johnson and the rest of them are not ­being sacked. While the Afghanistan crisis unfolded, Dominic Raab insisted on remaining on his holiday abroad. Raab has since introduced the language of the hour: “with hindsight”. I think of Matt Hancock, who now sits on the back benches, and whether with “hindsight” the images of nurses around the country wearing bin bags haunt him, and he regrets his repeated denial of any ­national shortage of PPE.

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As Michael Gove was throwing some dubious shapes in an Aberdeen nightclub, across town a friend who is a nurse worked the night shift on a drug crisis team. One of her service users has recently died from a heroin overdose. “Another young man,” she tells me, “another funeral. Somebody’s son. Why does nobody care?”

Ninety-five per cent of heroin in the UK comes from Afghanistan. How we treat our most vulnerable, here and elsewhere is a measure of our humanity. I can’t stop thinking about the utter desperation of those people waiting in a sewage-filled canal for a chance to flee Afghanistan, the sewage water turning red with blood.

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After decades of fierce agnosticism, I find myself one of the rapidly increasing numbers of people searching for meaning, and questioning faith. On Sunday 29 August I am in church, a glittering modern building with an impressive sound system and a young, diverse congregation that look like they are advertising something. Converse trainers, perhaps, or vegan baked goods.

I don’t find any spiritual answers about the pandemic, or what it all means, but – for a short time at least – I feel part of something bigger, warmer and more profound. Of course, all that glitters is not gold; at one point a man at the back starts shouting and screaming. His suffering is palpable. This is a time of suffering. But, in this space, he is not alone. We are not alone. 

Christie Watson is professor of medical and health humanities at the University of East Anglia. Her book, “The Courage to Care: A Call for Compassion”, is published in paperback by Vintage.

This article appears in the 10 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Labour's lost future