THIS year governments around the world have subjected the people to a barrage of fear, manipulation, isolation, loss of contact, and disruption to the routines of life and the events that mark the passing of time. There’s nothing to do and nowhere to go. Unable to plan, the loss of friends and cultural activities and no opportunity to make new friends. Jobs are being lost, illnesses going untreated and suicide rates are escalating.
Every week now for several months I have gone out and about distributing my anti-lockdown leaflets to anyone who will take them: on trains, in the streets. I do not wear a mask. People can see my face, see my expressions, read my emotions: that’s how human life should be.
Every week I’ve felt the mood changing. There was a lifting and an air of hope during October, a sense that things were going the right way, that soon we would be back to normal. By the middle of this month that had changed completely. Now there are the haves and the have-nots. Some whose lives and whose minds are easy, who trust the government, their conscience clear, who have all they need (or so they believe). I can spot them at a glance: the posture slightly rigid, the brow clear, what one can see of the face displays no pain, no anxiety, no doubts, and little care.
For the have-nots, distress and worry is etched on their faces, bodies bowed, somehow crabbed, as if trying to find a shell, but failing. These people are not candidates for homeless charities, yet they are alone and afraid – of what’s happening, of being out of line, of not conforming, of condemnation – and deprived of what they need: human contact, compassion and normal social connection.
Here are some of those I’ve come into contact with.
Late October: The woman from Hungary
Bitter expression, small, twisted face, closed in anger – gradually she opened up and told me her story. She’d escaped to Britain from behind the Iron Curtain, and what a beautiful place it was then! Next week she’s leaving for ever, escaping once again. She’s sorry for the British, they don’t realise what’s coming to them.
The woman sitting on the pavement
Sleeping bag rolled up beside her, plastic bags, small dog on her lap. I asked: What happened? Her husband died, she lost her home, and the council wouldn’t let her keep her dog. She’s cold, she said, so cold, but she can’t be without her little companion. So much for Maslow and his hierarchy of human needs. If she can beg enough she spends the night in a shelter, hiding her dog in her rucksack. I gave her enough for one night. It’s not as if I have much myself – beggars mistake me for one of them.
November 4: The lone man
‘Would you like a leaflet?’ ‘No, no thanks . . . Oh wait a minute, can we have a talk about that?’ He’d been looking at his phone, and found they were locking people down again from that evening. He said, ‘It began with Mothering Sunday: don’t visit your parents, don’t visit Granny, not even to sit in the garden! Holy Week, Easter, Pentecost, Trinity, VE day – all lost – and now Bonfire Night and Remembrance Sunday,’ adding despairingly, ‘there’s a pattern to this’. Robert needed a hug, a long, gripping, holding hug.
The taxi driver
His wife works in a supermarket. She hates the mask. It makes her ill. ‘So why does she wear it, does she not know she can claim exemption?’ There’s a bitter laugh in reply. It doesn’t matter what the government says, she must wear the mask or lose her job.
December 7: The young man on the train
It’s early but he’s drunk already. Eventually he grasps my meaning, that I don’t support lockdown, ‘Oh you are my man!’ he exclaims delightedly. ‘It’s all lies,’ as he rips off his mask, fist bumps, grasps my hand. There’s a woman watching and she wants fist bumps too and a hurried hug as she exits the train.
The woman from Jamaica
Like the woman from Hungary – what a wonderful place Britain used to be and how awful today! ‘Lockdowns do no good. It’s a terrible future for my children, friends, grandchildren.’
December 15: Shoppers
The night they put London into Tier 3 and the pubs, restaurants and cafes lost all their Christmas business. I found only a few customers and fewer still who seemed bothered about it. I tried the queue waiting to go into the British Library, but had no takers. I’ve come to expect that now, the bizarrely closed minds, the blindness to facts that are in full sight of us all, and irrational thinking from supposedly intelligent people.
It turned into a long day. As if in a time-warp, I encountered a pair of policemen on the beat. Standing to one side, ‘I always used to say hello,’ I said. Relieved expressions, big thumbs-up and ‘Merry Christmas’ in reply.
Then came a wedding party, just four young people in their twenties; the couple showing a tender love, all doing their best, but all with that pained and fearful look; no laughter and little joy, hope or expectation to be seen.
The ‘haves’, it seems to me, have taken their Christmas gift for themselves; their peace of mind at other people’s expense. One of the compliant mask-wearers even owned up, that she has put herself into denial of all the politics and corruption to help her get through the year.
The young woman on the train
On the way home, ‘What do you think of lockdown?’ I asked
a woman sitting alone. ‘Oh,’ she said, her voice thin and high, ‘It’s too much, I can’t have any more.’ I gave her the leaflet with local group contact details (see below) and moved on. She was wearing one of those close-fitting muzzles and I begin to feel that I just can’t handle it, that I can’t tolerate the replacement of humans with that. This woman, barely more than a girl as she seemed, has been on my mind ever since. She seemed too worn down, too crushed, helpless and closed in on herself to be able to reach out for that human contact and support she so clearly needs.
On the train home, it’s all got too much for me. My legs won’t work, I’m too hot, I need fresh air. Within moments the voices surround me. ‘Are you OK? What’s the matter? Do you need an ambulance?’ They’re calling for a wheelchair, for First Aid. By the time the station staff had picked me up, set me right and put me on the train, there must have been ten different people, and each one helpful, asking: ‘What else can I do? Cup of tea? Do you have someone to meet you at the next station?’
And I realise what their urgent need to help me is about: they need to perform that act of humanity, to make that strong connection with another person, just as much as I need them to help me.
Maybe you don’t realise, so please hear my plea, to Christians especially. God’s suffering children are there all around and they need you not for preaching but simple pastoral care. If not you, who is to minister and who will answer the call?