Kishwar Desai: So many Indians found calling in NHS, so many devoted their lives
“Our streets aren’t empty, they are filled with love,” said the Queen, touching an instant chord with the millions of those listening to her last week. What a beautiful sentence that was, as she reminded us that this was not the time to despair. Her compassion came through, so did her call for courage — as she recalled the dark days that Britain has been through before, especially during the world wars.
Her speech on May 8, commemorating the formal acceptance of defeat by the Nazis, 75 years ago — was peppered with references to the World War II. It was guaranteed to bring out the fighting spirit, the best in the British people, who have been hammered relentlessly by the coronavirus.
The news on the virus has not been good, and the handling by the pandemic by the government has veered between chaotic to confused. Accused of having spent far too much time thinking about Brexit (remember that?) than preparing to combat the virus, the government’s internal struggle is beginning to reveal the unease within. And so the Queen’s speech played the role of a unifier, as the numbers of the dead and dying continued to unsettle the nation.
The Queen reminded us of the historicity of her message: she played a bit from her father George the Sixth speaking on the same day, same time in 1945, at nine o’clock. There was footage of the celebrations, with the Royal Family appearing on the balcony of Buckingham Palace.
People stood, Covid fashion, away from each other. Many joined in singing the popular wartime song by Vera Lynne, We shall Meet Again, which meant so much in the 1940s.
You have to sympathise with the Queen, as many much loved traditions are biting the dust. Her birthday last month could not be celebrated as it usually is. No horse guards, no fly past of planes, no garden parties. All because of Covid. Now again on the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day last Friday, there were no street parties, no celebrations with crowds streaming into Piccadilly Circus or the Mall. Everything was sedate and quiet and discreetly distant.
The analogy of War and Covid keeps on coming up frequently. But at least in World War II the leaders stood shoulder to shoulder with the people. Not the snobbish difference between officers and men as happened in during World War I. when they said that the soldiers were “lions led by donkeys”.
The sight of the newly recovered Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, was supposed to make everyone feel confident again. But unfortunately, the PR machinery that has worked so well for him seems to be crumbling. After telling people to stay at home, he was spotted, dishevelled as ever, strolling along a park, with a coffee in his hand. It looked almost as though he had forgotten what his job actually was, and like millions of others, was just another tourist, ambling along, enjoying the splendid sunshine .
This is the time when he should be photographed sleeves rolled up, alongside his cabinet colleagues (especially the popular Chancellor, Rishi Sunak) digging deep into ideas of how to stop the march of the coronavirus. Worse, he was not even wearing a mask. Even if he doesn’t need one (unlike the rest of us ordinary mortals) he could have worn one, just to send the message across of “staying safe”.
People are complaining about the increasingly apparent incompetence of the government, as the death toll mounts. They have made so many promises — on tests, on delivery of PPE, on how soon we will turn the corner, that many have lost all faith. Worse, Johnson, who normally is able to bluff his way through any criticism, was caught out on his first Prime Minister’s questions since his return from the hospital. This was during a virtual-cum-physical House of Commons meeting, with those few physically present scattered across the benches and the rest online from their homes. There were no heaving groups of Tories behind him to save him, nor a mumbling opponent like Jeremy Corbyn on the other side. Sir Keir Starmer the new Leader of Opposition, a high class barrister, managed to expose the weaknesses of the government and the Prime Minister.
The toll has been horrendous for all — but especially for the Black and ethnic minority community. The mortality rate is four times that for the majority White population. Their photographs in the newspapers makes one realise how many from the Indian subcontinent have devoted their lives to the National Health Service as doctors and surgeons and nurses. They died in the line of duty because the government could not manage to get protective equipment. Even so the Queen made an address to the nation. She played a bit from her father George the Sixth speaking that day on the hour of nine o’clock, the same as hers, 75 years ago. There was footage of the celebrations and with the Royal Family appearing on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. People standing Covid fashion away from each other were out of doors. Many joined in singing the popular wartime song by Vera Lynne, We Shall Meet Again, which meant so much then.
Many of those who died — Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis — were usually working beyond retirement age because they were dedicated to their calling. All these years they’ve never had their due recognition. Let us hope things improve.