I need to talk to you about three things.
Thing 1: In the last few days, journalists have sprinkled lemon juice onto the pages of the Panama Papers, revealing the greedy secrets of people who believe that their success belongs to them and no one else. Behind closed doors, people have lied, deceived and turned millions into billions without paying a penny of tax on their profits. It’s all above board, of course. Thatcher made sure of that in 1979. Politicians and heads of state are on this list; the very people responsible for the care of society’s most vulnerable, most poor.
It’s the arrogance of it that gets to me. These people must have convinced themselves that they have earned that money, all on their very own. It is their intelligence, talent and hard work that built up that obscene mountain of cash, and if other people don’t have obscene mountains of cash it’s because they aren’t as talented, intelligent and hard-working.
People who avoid tax have forgotten that they are lucky. They have forgotten that their intelligence and ability, their family and the circumstances into which they were born were accidents of nature, privileges. But they are not innately deserving. It’s all one big genetic lottery.
People who avoid tax have forgotten that they are indebted to a tax-funded infrastructure. Society paid for the roads that got them to school and that now transport their goods lorries and employees. Mr. Tax-Evader might have paid for his own education, but the nurse who saved his life by spotting that dodgy mole wouldn’t have been able to save his life if her training hadn’t been funded by our taxes. Overly simplistic, I know, but you get the idea. It’s not the general public that need reminding we’re all in this together.
People who avoid tax have forgotten that hard work is not synonymous with financial gain. Some of the most hardworking people choose jobs that invest in societal cohesion, not yachts.
Which brings me to Thing 2. Yesterday the junior doctors went on strike. Our government has forced them to take action that contradicts their values as professionals and humans.
Many people choose a career in medicine as a vocation. Some people say they do it for the money, but I know they’re wrong. They’re wrong because to pass all of those medical exams you need to be clever. And if you’re clever you’ll be able to work out that when you divide the annual salary of a doctor or nurse by the hours they actually work, take off the student debts, and factor in the fact that they’re responsible for our mental and physical wellbeing, our actual human lives, the pay is distinctly average. It really is.
Our National Health Service is dependent on the goodwill of its staff. Their willingness to go the extra mile is the main reason why it’s still functioning, yet this Conservative government has abused their generosity and broken their morale. Behind closed doors, this democratically elected party have made decisions, bad decisions, and presented them to us as a fait accompli.
It was while I was feeling angry and disillusioned about the junior doctors that I encountered Thing 3. I read a piece in the Nursing Times by an author called James Hannah. You can read the full piece here, but to summarise, it’s about the hospice experience that formed the inspiration for his book “The A to Z of You and Me”. In his article James praises the work of carers and highlights one particular incident that happened after his mother-in-law had just died. He writes:
“I heard a nurse enter the room in which my mother-in-law still lay, and say, softly, gently: ‘I’m just going to remove your wedding ring now, for safe keeping, all right, lovey?’
“An act of the purest respect; one person talking to another, even though she knew she wouldn’t be heard. I heard.”
It’s lovely isn’t it? It’s especially lovely to me as James Hannah is my husband, and his mother-in-law was my mum. But that’s not what gave me pause for thought. The piece was picked up by the excellent organisation Dying Matters. It did the rounds on social media and when comments started appearing on Facebook they stopped me in my tracks. The same message again and again. Have a read of this screenshot.
I’d been so moved by the gentle, respectful interaction between the nurse and my mum, but I’d thought it was a one-off act of kindness. Now I was learning that it was common practice amongst medical staff.
Comment after comment talked about ‘honour’, ‘respect’, and a ‘last act of care’. Even when we’re stone cold dead, even when no one is there to see them do it, the doctors, nurses and carers champion these basic human values. They’ve done it for years and years without credit or acknowledgement. And every time they talk to our fragile human shell like this, their simple action affirms that each and every one of us is important. To an outsider like me, it was if I’d stumbled upon a beautiful secret.
Sometimes no one is watching, and this, surely, is the moment when we reveal most about ourselves.
For a second I wondered what would happen if one of those tax cheats or self-serving politicians was dead in that hospice bed, their money stagnating, undemocratic policies crushing the welfare of future generations.
But there was no need to wonder. The answer is obvious.
Someone from the medical team would hold their cold hand, tenderly and respectfully, unseen and unheard, and say:
“I’m just going to remove your wedding ring now, for safe keeping, all right lovey?”
And that’s how it should be. That’s what should bloody well happen behind closed doors.