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Leader Comment: Looking beyond 100,000

29 January 2021

THE letter from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York to mark 100,000 Covid-related deaths on Tuesday covered most of the bases. These were people, not simply statistics. Disadvantaged groups had been hardest hit. The NHS and the vaccine roll-out gave us all hope. The guidelines should continue to be followed. Comfort could be found in prayer. (Had they used a footnote for their advert for a nightly prayer initiative from 1 February, it would have removed the promotional element from the letter.) There were, though, two elements missing.

The first omission can be put down to the Archbishops’ discretion. The anger that many relatives are directing at the Government’s handling of the pandemic perhaps has no place in a letter intended to comfort and reassure. Prayers of anger and despair are important elements of a Christian spirituality, however. Ancient Hebrew rage and lament has been carried through the centuries at the heart of the Church’s liturgy. Psychologists point to them as key properties of bereavement — even when no blame for the death can be attached to anyone. In the case of Covid-19, relatives are all too clear that the delays, dithering, confusion, and errors have contributed to what is currently the worst-recorded death rate per head of population in the world. If they are not invited to articulate their anger, there is a danger that they will remain ignorant of God’s anger at the injustices and cruelties suffered by God’s people, all of whom are even dearer to God than to their dearest relatives.

The other thing missing from the letter is a global perspective. Although the Archbishops were addressing a domestic audience, their position in a worldwide Church gives them an opportunity to broaden the vision of the people of the UK. Only last week, speaking in the House of Lords, the Archbishop of Canterbury referred to the uneven distribution of available vaccines. The richest countries — the 27 countries in the EU, Canada, the US, the UK, Australia, and Japan — have secured about half the supply, with options on more as it comes on stream. They account for 13 per cent of the world’s population. At the other end of the queue at the pharmaceutical check-out is Covax, the multinational organisation that is, in essence, the only hope that countries in the developing world have of obtaining a vaccine. They acknowledge that many will not see the vaccine till 2022. Debates in the UK about whether police officers or teachers should be next in line for a vaccine should thus be seen through the eyes of front-line health workers overseas whose hope of survival lies in luck and prayer. Had the Archbishops suggested joining our prayers to theirs, it would have encouraged a better understanding of this country’s international obligations.

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