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Clapping for Carers: What will the Church’s legacy be?

 Judith Harbinson
Street art on brick wall

“Coronavirus (COVID-19) Sheffield, UK” by Tim Dennell is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

“What happens when the clapping stops?” is a question we’ve all asked in recent days as we witnessed the official end of ten weeks of ‘Clapping for Carers’. Nigel Lawson famously called the NHS “the closest thing the English people have to a religion”, and the way the public embraced the weekly show of solidarity suggests he was right.

The affirmation of healthcare workers is well established and embedded within the culture of the church. Many of our social welfare systems and hospitals have their foundations in the work of religious orders or mission organisations which grew out of a desire to help the poor, the sick and the destitute. Healthcare in the modern secular context is one of the few professions which is still seen as “vocational” even when its religious aspect may no longer be a reality for most people.

Since the outbreak of Covid-19, healthcare workers have faced unprecedented challenges, while at the same time receiving unparalleled levels of applause, goodwill and affirmation from the public. Some medical staff have reported being buoyed by this very public outpouring of appreciation, but many have been equally concerned that this gesture is not enough to provoke lasting and tangible changes to improve their working lives in real terms. Some have even suggested this weekly ritual was simply a sentimental distraction from the real issues at hand. Strikingly, in the final week of the official “Clap for Carers”, a group of doctors held a silent protest outside 10 Downing St, their placards reading “Doctors Not Martyrs.” It has been well documented that BAME healthcare workers are particularly at risk from Covid-19. Does the fact that caring professions such as medicine and nursing are viewed as vocational somehow justify the sacrifice we ask of healthcare workers in entering dangerous “front-lines” on our behalf?

Artwork on a wall showing healthcare workers with war imagery

“Tribute to Nursing, Broad and Vine” by MikeLeone is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A recent harrowing report from the BBC found that Italian medical staff who were applauded and celebrated during the crisis now feel forgotten about; since the “adrenaline high” of the crisis has passed, they are now experiencing significant levels of burnout and grief. Experts worry about a spike of PTSD cases as healthcare workers begin to process what they have witnessed.

How will the church respond if we see a similar phenomenon here in the UK? Mental health provision will be a necessity for staff as they face a possible second wave without the same level of public support (or even public health co-operation). Applauding healthcare workers is easy, but the story must not end there — we must listen to the reality of their daily experiences, while the pandemic is ongoing and when it is over.

A recent report which stemmed from an ECLAS-funded Scientists in Congregations grant looked into the lived experiences of Christians from the Church of England working in science, technology, and medical professions in the UK. The report, by Revd Dr Justin Tomkins, offers ten lessons for the wider church based on surveys from a range of science professionals, 46% of whom came from healthcare roles. Some key conclusions emerging from responses included: “Christians can articulate the awesome and inspiring value of their work for society”, “Christians are experiencing complex ethical challenges raised by their work”, and “Christians are open to having the wider church pray for their technological workplace.”

It’s immensely encouraging to know that the church is already actively considering these issues. The report notes that it was motivated by “the desire to be part of the wider church engaging well with these questions, and growing in knowledge and obedience of how we need to be praying, teaching and serving in these contexts.” This echoes comments from Bishop Sarah Mullally, Bishop of London and former Chief Nursing Officer for England, at the national anniversary service for Florence Nightingale: “If we are going to really celebrate nurses and midwives this year, we need to support them through the cost that they have paid, and to continue to support them when all this is over.” The clapping may be over, but carers need our support more than ever.

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