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Paul Vallely: Review of 2020

18 December 2020

Paul Vallely looks back on the impact of Covid, extreme weather, and the killing of George Floyd


Medical staff at the William Harvey Hospital in Kent respond to the weekly Clap for Carers

Medical staff at the William Harvey Hospital in Kent respond to the weekly Clap for Carers


THE year 2020 has been defined by Covid-19. More than a million people have died worldwide. Imagine looking round the crowd at one of Britain’s largest football stadiums, and you will take on board how many of our own citizens have perished in the pandemic. And that does not take into account the cancer patients whose treatment has been on hold, and the operations that have been cancelled. Fear, or at the very least dark apprehension, feels as if it has been the dominant mood of the year now ending.

The pathogen has penetrated far more deeply than into our physical health. Jobs have been lost, the economy has been set back, and companies have closed — some of them, alas, perhaps never to reopen. Unimaginably large debts are being passed down, probably to the next generation. Children have gone uneducated, and social inequalities have been magnified. The doors of churches been locked, the eucharist has been withheld, and communities fragmented. The voice of the arts has been silenced. Old people have been left lonely and isolated. An unseen toll has been taken on mental health.

This was an utterly novel virus, and most governments struggled to know how to respond. But Britain has been cursed with one of the most incompetent. Because Boris Johnson restricted membership of his Cabinet to Brexit loyalists, the country has been lumbered with lightweight ministers. They made decisions consistently too late. They bungled the ordering of hospital PPE. They discharged old people with Covid-19 from hospital and sent them back to their care homes, where the virus killed more people than in any other sector.

They handed contracts and appointments to unqualified cronies. They over-centralised and failed to take advantage of the expertise of university labs and local health officials. Their “world-beating” track-and-test system has been third-rate. Somehow, they contrived to spend more money than almost any other government, and yet suffered more deaths and more economic damage. Their only redeeming feature was a Chancellor who put in place a decent economic and financial package in the early stages of the crisis.

But the better angels of our nature have been in evidence elsewhere. Our doctors and nurses and carers, despite struggling against a legacy of underfunding, have shown themselves to be both brave and committed to the common good. So have shop assistants, utility workers, delivery drivers, and refuse collectors: low-paid and low-status workers without whom, we have belatedly come to realise, our society cannot function.

Then there is the vast increase in community spirit, which began with standing on our doorsteps and applauding NHS key workers, but which extended into new forms of social solidarity as neighbours shopped for one another, delivered medicines, and set up video contacts for the elderly. This public spirit was writ large in individuals such as the footballer Marcus Rashford.

Families got more time to spend together. Birdsong could be heard, and pollution was lowered, suggesting that a new way of life is possible, post-pandemic. The ingenuity of our scientists brought vaccines. When the inevitable public inquiry into the disaster comes, it should not forget to celebrate the good side.


Climate Change

IT HAS been a bad year for climate change. It was announced that this had been the hottest decade ever, or since records began, at any rate. There have been unprecedented flooding, heatwaves, and wildfires, which have cost sums in the billions from the US to Australia. Sea ice is at an all-time low in the Antarctic, and in decline in the Arctic. The temperature in Siberia is five degrees above normal. There have been floods in south-east Asia, and a record number of storms in the Atlantic. All around the globe, extreme weather has become more intense, more frequent, and more predictable.

Climate change is the defining issue of our time. The evidence that it is caused by human activity is ever more clear. Just last month, the 2020 Global Risks Perception Survey showed that the top five hazards facing the world over the next decade were all climate-related. And yet the world is failing to show increased ambition to arrest the process, or even to mitigate or adapt to it.

PAWildfires in the Los Angeles National Forest near Pasadena, in September

You would think that predictions of the end of the world would be enough to scare us into action. Not so. Perhaps understandably, the short-term dangers of Covid-19 have overwhelmed our perception of the risk of global heating. And yet, before the pandemic, our attitudes suggested that the real challenge on climate change was not scientific or technical, but psychological. Perhaps we are too seduced by the comforts and conveniences of modern life. Perhaps it is to do with optimism bias, the bystander effect, or a conviction that our small actions will change nothing. Fake news has not helped.

There was some good news in the announcement by Boris Johnson of his ten-point plan to promote a green recovery from Covid-19 and to help the UK to achieve the target of net-zero emissions by 2050. He announced an ambitious plan to reduce emissions by 2030 — faster than any other large economy — with a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars, and the phasing out of gas central heating from new-built homes.

All this looks good in advance of Britain’s chairing of next year’s COP26 climate-change summit. Alas, close analysis of the figures showed that Mr Johnson was intending to spend 25 times more on HS2 than on a green recovery. Of the £12-billion package, only £3 billion was new money. The Government’s spending plans are dwarfed by figures pledged by other European nations. Meeting our existing targets before setting new ones might have been a better idea.

The bad news is that climate change is already here for the world’s poor. A report at the end of 2020 showed that 25 million people in 140 countries had been displaced from their homes by weather-related hazards. That annual number could increase tenfold by 2050 on present trends. Facts do not seem to change people’s mind on the subject. What will?


Black Lives Matter

THE Black Lives Matter movement this year marked a significant milestone in the history of race relations in this country. It was sparked by an event outside the UK: the killing of a black man, George Floyd, by a white policeman, who was caught on film kneeling on the neck of Mr Floyd, who pleaded for mercy until he died. About 15 million people participated in 2020 Black Lives Matter protests in the United States, making it one of the largest protest movements in US history.

The video of the incident flashed around the world. Large demonstrations took place in cities in the UK, in solidarity with the American protesters, but also to commemorate black people who have died in police custody in this country. Racist behaviour and thinking among the police was the initial focus of the movement, but over the course of 2020 its concerns became wider.

Premier League footballers before every match adopted the practice of “taking the knee” as part of a movement to “give racism the boot” from football. Protesters in Bristol pulled down a statue of the late-17th-century philanthropist Edward Colston, who had made his money from slave-trading. In Oxford, protesters demanded the removal of a statue of the 19th-century colonial imperialist Cecil Rhodes, whose philanthropy continues to finance 83 students to study each year at the university. Campaigners called for a broadening of the school curriculum.

PAA Black Lives Matter rally in solidarity with US protests takes place in Leeds, in June

All this has brought a new awareness to many in the Church that we are what Ronald Rolheiser calls “nice racists”: well-intentioned, but still prey to an unconscious racism. White people are blind to the privilege that we enjoy, which, like the air we breathe, we don’t see. The Church has long been good at saying all the right things about racial equality. But, if we insist, “I don’t see colour,” we are not demonstrating even-handedness: we may well be ignoring the particular needs of disadvantaged groups.

Campaigners speak of a “presumption of deficit”, which is what leads to the assumption that a black woman in a courtroom is a defendant, not a barrister. It is why the Revd Azariah France-Williams insists that the Church is “a long way from being a place of black flourishing”, and allows black and brown ministers “to drown in a sea of complacency and collusion”.

There are dangers in this. A lack of sensitivity can slide into an over-sensitivity where demands for “respect” creep into intolerance and the no-platforming of speakers. Our universities have become a battleground over freedom of speech between the “woke” and old-style liberals which extends beyond race and into issues of gender and religion. For all that, Black Lives Matter proved for many in 2020 to be a watershed that has made us more aware of our unconscious assumptions.



IICSAThe IICSA report on the Anglican Church, published in OctoberSAFEGUARDING, sadly, was perhaps the issue that most dominated the interaction between Church and society in 2020, as the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) published reports on the Church of England and the Church in Wales, and the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales. IICSA was highly critical of all of them, suggesting that members of both denominations alike had put protecting the reputation of the Church — and clerical offenders — before the best interests of the survivors of abuse. All had made some improvements over the years, but progress had been too slow.

Although historic cases continued to emerge, the nature of the crisis altered as public understanding of abuse has developed. It is now clear that the trauma of abuse is buried by many victims immediately after the offence. But they find it increasingly difficult to suppress as the years pass. They then find themselves re-traumatised by the failure of the church authorities to respond to them with empathy and compassion.

Victims talk of feeling “re-abused”, which is why church leaders are increasingly in the firing line. The Archbishop of York, the Most Revd Stephen Cottrell, survived the revelation of safeguarding failures just before his enthronement as Archbishop. But Cardinal Vincent Nichols, who was judged by IICSA to have been repeatedly unsympathetic towards victims of abuse, faced calls from many quarters to resign.

In both denominations, senior clerics have struggled to find new forms of words to express their shock, sadness, remorse, and firm purpose of amendment. The General Synod has changed its tone and begun at last to speak about safeguarding as a matter of justice. The Archbishops’ Council has made a commitment to a compensation scheme for survivors: a pilot project is already making interim payments. There has been a string of expensive appointments to the National Safeguarding Team. The Archbishop of Canterbury has committed himself to leading the change, and says that he is keen to listen to survivors, “to keep developing and learning in his own ministry”.

Survivors remain unassuaged. They say that the interim scheme is chaotic, and has no structure, independence, or terms of reference. The resignation of the C of E’s Director of Safeguarding after just 18 months in the job this month confirmed them in that view. They complain that the system of Core Groups for the management of safeguarding complaints is flawed, because they exclude survivors of abuse and are held in secret. Other victims describe IICSA’s recommendations to the C of E as “weak and non-specific”. Foot-dragging over the Smyth and Fletcher reviews, they believe, suggests that the culture of denial persists in some church quarters.

Survivors are even more scathing about the Roman Catholic Church. Recently, one of the Pope’s advisers, Fr Hans Zollner, the president of Rome’s Centre for Child Protection, wrote to a group of survivors to say that “without voices like yours . . . we will never be able to . . . bring about real change.” Eighteen of the English bishops wrote lengthy letters, too; but then one of them declared that Cardinal Nichols had his full support. The survivors were staggered, and one announced that she is to sue the Cardinal for personal injury.

The shadow of abuse falls still across both Churches. Some feel that the Anglicans are making more progress. But, in wider society, a corrosive stain remains upon the reputation of the Church.

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