It should come as no surprise that when British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s coronavirus symptoms worsened over the weekend, he was taken to a National Health Service (NHS) hospital in London. Despite the fact that President Trump two years ago declared the NHS “broke and not working,” the universally free, taxpayer-funded health service has become the U.K.’s practical and emotional front line during the COVID-19 national crisis. Indeed, no British politician would allow themselves to be treated anywhere else at such a time. The outpouring of support for the NHS has been one of the defining features of the country’s coronavirus experience.
U.K. citizens care deeply about their free-at-the-point-of-use, state-funded health-care behemoth. As a British person, and a diabetic since childhood, so do I. It’s a system in which no one is refused medical care because they lack insurance, and no one has to worry about whether seeking care for their symptoms will result in bankruptcy. More than 750,000 people volunteered to carry out tasks to ease the coronavirus burden the NHS currently shoulders, delivering food and medicine, driving patients to appointments, and manning virus phone lines. They continue to emerge from their lockdowns in huge numbers every Thursday evening at 8 to show their appreciation by clapping for the NHS carers.
The pandemic has also shone a light on the reality of multiculturalism in Britain. Amged El-Hawrani, Adil El Tayar, Habib Zaidi, Jitendra Rathod, Alice Kit Tak Ong, Areema Nasreen — just some of those who have died treating the infected. Brexit exposed a petty vein of nativism in U.K. society, to which these names are the ultimate rebuke. Already, the 2,800 foreign doctors, nurses, and paramedics who sustain the NHS have been granted an automatic one-year visa extension. Now, campaigns are under way to grant them the right to stay indefinitely — their families alongside them. There’s nothing like a crisis to change perceptions of where tribes begin and end.
The NHS is not the only British institution to vivify during the pandemic. Moments before the news of Johnson’s hospitalization broke, the country took to its collective sofa to watch Queen Elizabeth II deliver only the fifth televised address — apart from her annual Christmas message — of her near-70-year reign. A hollow anachronism, Britain’s monarchy survives primarily as nationally-funded soap opera, but on Sunday the 93-year-old Queen brought her unparalleled experience to bear, delivering a speech of poise, subtlety, and power.
Likewise the BBC — the sick man of the U.K.’s media landscape, beset by shrinking budgets and an increasing sense of being left behind by digital progress — has been a source of succor for people locked in their homes, craving information they can trust. Sixty-four percent of Britons now consider it the most reliable source of information about COVID-19, while 53 percent say they are using BBC News more than before the pandemic began.
The contrast with America’s handling of the coronavirus is notable. Every night at 7, the streets of New York City resound with applause, echoing the U.K.’s Thursday cacophony. At a national level though, the same solidarity has not been shown. This is partly a function of the country’s health-care setup, in which power is devolved to states, and also of the pandemic’s progress, which is yet to hit the rest of the country like it has New York.
This, however, is a crisis that calls for strong centralized leadership, and, despite his daily podium performances, such leadership is not being provided by President Trump. Nearly every country to suffer a sizable blow from COVID-19 has responded with draconian measures implemented by the central government — a necessary step, the argument goes, to bring the decisive, collective response from the populace required to combat the contagion. Trump has declined to take this kind of activist role. Perhaps his reasoning is political: With November’s election approaching, taking real control of the situation risks him being held responsible for the outcomes.
With the president reluctant to lead, the response to the pandemic will continue to be piecemeal. States will continue to compete with each other and the federal government for medical supplies and ventilators. The absence of a universal health-care system will only exacerbate this discord.
Johnson is in intensive care battling COVID-19, and while he’s certainly not out of the woods, the latest reports suggest his condition is currently stable. On Tuesday, many Britons stood outside their homes to clap for their ailing prime minister. That’s not to say that the bitter divisions that have characterized British politics for the last few years have suddenly evaporated because of Johnson’s misfortune — many of those who declined to clap cited political grievances — but whatever people’s opinion of him, Johnson’s sudden vulnerability gives Britons pause. Humans are storytellers, after all, and the country’s plight now feels personified in its prime minister.
As the British people rally around their shared institutions, they have been revealed as both sentimental and as valuing the linchpins of their social democracy: equal access to neutral, trusted information, and to free, high-quality health care. In times of threat, people move to protect the things they hold dear. It remains to be seen, as the virus continues to spread in the U.S., what values or people Americans will rally around.
Last week, the family of a New Yorker a few degrees of separation from me had been scouring the city, looking for the medication she needed, without success. A Mexican immigrant in her late 80s, she had no insurance, and there had been a coronavirus run on her usual medication. Her blood sugar levels were dangerously high. My neighbor contacted me, asking for my advice, but there was only one course of action — it was an emergency, I gave her some of my insulin. This is a scary thing to do during a lockdown, as diabetics need a steady supply of the drug to live. I couldn’t avoid the thought: This would never happen in the U.K.
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