From Police Chiefs declaring that they would be studying the contents of shopping trolleys to ascertain what is “essential”, to notes attached to the cars or posted through the doors of NHS Nurses by self-appointed lockdown police accusing them of breaking the rules, it strikes me that what is referred to in military parlance as the “moral component” of our fight against the impact of Covid-19 has been overlooked and in some cases completely forgotten.
British Military doctrine highlights there are three components to the application of fighting (read: any) power: the physical component (blowing stuff up and protecting yours from getting blown up); the conceptual component (the thought processes behind getting the job done); and - just as critical but the one that effort is least often applied to - the moral component (the will to fight).
In the measures taken to act against the spread of Covid-19 in this country, much has been made of the physical component. Social distancing to prevent the spread of disease, rapid innovation projects to deliver greater numbers of ventilators, the locking down of “non-essential” activities outside of the home to mention a few. These are in some ways “easy” – tangible acts and physical objects we can see, count and measure to give an impression of action and constructive activity.
The conceptual component is more challenging; our adversary does not think (debate still rages as to if it is even alive) and there is not yet enough data to be able to deliver certainty to any planned response. Not enough is known about the prevalence of asymptomatic cases to truly understand its spread without far greater testing to allow us to more accurately model action and response. However, we can formulate plans for best and worst case scenarios – we can think about the problem and begin to derive solutions.
The hardest component of all, and the one that needs more focus is that moral component. The slogan “stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives” has been immensely powerful; a simple mantra that has distilled guidance to one sentence to stick in the mind. However, effective as it is in getting across a simple message, in doing so has lost some the nuance to the guidance behind it, leading to misunderstanding, abuse and upset.
Take, for instance, two NHS Nurses in the recent news; one found a note on her car and another had one posted through their door. These messages called them disgraceful for leaving their home unnecessarily (in the eyes of the authors) and carried the phrase “you have been reported” – without any understanding that both had gone to do their duty to treat the sick and were part of the solution, not the problem. These are not isolated cases either, volunteers helping deliver assistance to isolated and vulnerable people and NHS workers have also found themselves at the receiving end of the ire of the “lockdown police”. The upset caused has significant impact on the morale of the recipients who are struggling to cope with the workload imposed on them and are then further demoralised by these acts. Small acts of power politics can have a lasting detrimental effect on the morale of those who are operating at the front lines of this war.
There is a growing understanding of the link between mental health and the ability of our immune systems to fight disease; in this respect the moral component therefore feeds directly into the physical. If the overall mental health of the population begins to decline, our overall physical health begins to follow, leaving us more vulnerable to the effects of infection and a greater strain on an already creaking healthcare system. While the importance of managing the physical health of the population in the immediate term has consumed the resources of the physical and conceptual components of our fight, it is the impact on our moral component that will begin to have an increasing influence; if the will to do what is required begins to be eroded by fears of the longer term impacts on livelihoods, perceived overreach into our lives by authority figures, concerns over long term health outcomes, increased incidences of mental health problems and an increase in the acts of petty unkindness outlined above then the unprecedented levels of compliance seen so far will begin to erode.
There is a fine balance to be walked in this area, which leads me to the furore surrounding the definition of “essential” activities and “essential” groceries. If we are to adhere rabidly to the bottom step of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, limiting ourselves to the mere physical act of staying alive, then anything other than staple nutrients, cleaning materials (and loo roll) could be considered non-essential. However, if we are to consider that the mental wellbeing of the population is of equal importance, the definition of essential begins to broaden somewhat. If I am shopping for essentials and I buy a bag of compost because the act of growing things is my coping mechanism, then to me it is as essential as the bag of rice and curry sauce in my trolley. If a chocolate Easter egg helps brighten the day of a child who no longer has access to their green spaces and friends at school, then it is not non-essential. To the supplier of the compost and the Easter egg, the small amount of money coming in from their sale may mean less cash flow worries and one more employee with a job at the end of this crisis. Wellbeing is not just about yoga, mindfulness exercises and whale-song but about being able to keep going with any of the small acts of joy that we can to make dark times more bearable.
The moral component of this fight is as critical as the others; in this context, it requires all of us to exercise a trait that can often be difficult to maintain – that of sustained and conscious application of kindness. To think before we write that note, to practice empathy before we judge what is essential to another person, to understand that we cannot judge others without understanding their circumstances then we have a better chance of coming out of the other side of this with communities and our mental wellbeing in a better state than if we take the alternate path. To understand that without mutual support and understanding our will to act in the necessary ways to deal with our circumstances will be irreparably damaged.
So, to modify the Government guidance slightly: stay home, protect the NHS, save lives and above all, be kind.
Inzpire Limited has delivered its GECO Mission Support System to 845 Naval Air Squadron (NAS), part of the Commando Helicopter Force.
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