England’s Fear, Walsingham’s Hope

Today, two rivers run silently though London, one is called the River Thames, the other is known by another name: fear.

The coronavirus has come amongst us.

Its arrival was gradual at first. Via news reports of surreal events in far-off places it seemed to drift towards the city before suddenly striking. Panic was its first work. No one was dead as yet, but the empty shelves of food stores evidenced the force that had begun to tighten its hold on, and will increasingly consume, a bewildered populace. Since that first silent arrival, this unseen virus is now to be evidenced everywhere: in every street, in every home, and upon every face.

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Its full force is beginning to be felt. The death toll across the United Kingdom steadily mounts, nowhere more so than in an eerily quiet London. As in 1348 and 1665, once again London is a city visited by a plague. Nowhere within the city bounds is free from the effects of the coronavirus, not even 10 Downing Street. There is no place of safety, no hiding from the contagion, and nowhere to run; even the doors of churches are bolted shut.

In particular, there is one 72-year-old whom this virus is attacking. It is the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS). Today the NHS faces a threat that was foreseen as a dreaded possibility in some hypothetical future but was never planned for by any government.

The NHS is much praised by politicians. It has become routine at election time to hear politicians on the campaign trail talk in reverential tones of the NHS as a “source of national pride”. While seeking re-election, a candidate’s wish to identify with a health service free to all is understandable. Nevertheless, the grandiose rhetorical flourishes belie the challenges faced by that health service even before this pandemic.

There are around 1.5 million people employed by the NHS. Estimates vary but today’s NHS is also carrying about 100,000 vacancies. Granted, many of these are filled by temporary and contract staff, but the Conservatives’ recent election slogan promising the building of “40 new hospitals” appears meaningless alongside an existing health service estate that cannot recruit enough permanent staff to work in it.

Like the rest of the world, South Korea has struggled to contain the coronavirus outbreak. One hears of over-worked medical staff there, with hospitals unable to cope. And yet, there are over 12.3 hospital beds per 1,000 South Koreans; in the UK, that figure is just 2.5 beds per 1,000 British. At the same time, the UK has watched with growing terror how already after just a few weeks the Italian health system is overwhelmed by the onslaught of the virus. And yet, that country has more beds—3.2 per 1,000—than the UK. As a result of this new virus, Italian medics are dealing with the excess of intensive care patients on trolleys parked along hospital corridors. The sad fact is that, in the past three years, without the coronavirus, 5,500 patients in the UK have died on trolleys while awaiting medical treatment in NHS hospitals.

Many medical staff are expecting the worst. Some of these same medics have died as a result of their calling, as doctors have in Italy; others will die inwardly as they watch medical treatment being offered to some but not to others. NHS hospitals will become places of dread, of desperation, and of despair—for patients and medical staff alike.

All the while, fear stalks this city—fear of a sickness few had heard of only a matter of weeks previously, but which now has altered all our lives, perhaps permanently. There is fear of redundancy; fear of poverty; and fear of financial ruin. The army is on standby given the anxiety around possible civil unrest, as is to be expected in such uncertain times. In the last weeks frustrations have been played out in supermarkets; how long will it be before these same competing demands surface on the streets?

During this current national emergency, politicians have inevitably reached for war metaphors, invoking the redoubtable spirit of Londoners in the 1940 Blitz. The talk among the electorate, however, is not of the “Blitz spirit” or even less of “fighting to the last on beaches.” Instead, ordinary people are more preoccupied in navigating the shifting sands of official pronouncements from a government desperately trying to mount a rear guard action for a pandemic already washed up on its shores.

Two rivers run through London tonight. The River Thames continues to move majestically through the silent city before heading outwards to the sea. The river of fear has already burst its banks and is now seeping into everything and everyone.

England has been re-dedicated as “Mary’s Dowry.” The event was to take place with much solemnity in churches and cathedrals throughout England, and nowhere more so than at Walsingham, the nation’s chief Marian shrine. Instead, this national act of piety to Our Lady took place across the land in every home, every family, and in every heart that chose to make this re-dedication.

The first such dedication took place in 1381. It came at a time of social and political unrest in England, due largely to the Peasants’ Revolt, which in turn was a consequence of the economic ramifications of the Black Death.

Given the contagion currently sweeping the land, the timing of this latest dedication to Our Lady could not be more welcome, and its power never more needed.

Photo credit: Getty Images


  • K. V. Turley

    K.V. Turley is the National Catholic Register’s U.K. correspondent. He writes from London.

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