by Dr Jamie Harrison, a GP in Durham, Research Fellow in Healthcare and Religion at Durham University and the Chair of the General Synod’s House of Laity
Since lockdown, I have spent an hour or so each week on a Skype call to a colleague, a young Spanish GP based at a former ‘steel works’ town in County Durham. She is invariably cheerful and encouraging, despite it snowing in mid-May; her place of work last year was Alicante! She tells me about her complex clinical cases, and I ask about her family and friends back in Spain. We compare notes, as I trawl back over my rusty medical knowledge; she is very patient with me. We agree that medicine is difficult and full of uncertainty. I hope I do some good.
Last week another doctor, Dr Poornima Nair, became the first female GP to die of Covid-19 in the UK. She had moved from India in 1994, working first in Gynaecology and then in General Practice not far from my home. A friend of mine had been her GP Trainer and he told me how excellent she was, both as a doctor and as a person. One of her patients described her as ‘a very conversational doctor. She had a deep and loving care for human beings in general. She worked entirely for the care and welfare of people,’ as the Guardian newspaper noted. She was aged 56, and had devoted the last 26 years of her working life to the NHS. Her son Varun noted that ‘memories of her life and sacrifices will continue to inspire us.’
So I am faced with the question of how the example and sacrifice of others might change me and might change others, as we move into an uncertain future. I started with doctors, because I am one, but equally it could be nurses, care home staff, bus and taxi drivers, shop workers – the list goes on. These are folk who have borne the brunt of the Covid-19 onslaught; many have died, and too often they come from BAME communities. Others have come to be with us from countries near and far in Europe. Will we value them more, pay them better, and protect them more effectively from the next attack by this or a subsequent virus?
As Christians, we can be foolish enough to think that we have a monopoly on virtue or on service to others. Perhaps we need to learn some humility? Certainly, the bit of the global church I am in has been pretty lamentable in its willingness to see the good in others and to look beyond its own tribalism. What others can teach us about goodness, service, and selfless kindness ought to challenge our parochialism and self-satisfaction; but will it? I am conscious that the economic pressures we will face may risk further scapegoating and name-calling of those perceived as ‘different from me’. So, I need to keep asking the question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ – and not just here in the UK. It seems that some questions just won’t go away: it might be someone from Spain or India; equally, it might be you.
In Jesus’s parable, his journeying Samaritan is both foreigner and benefactor. He risks the danger of the open road, with its evidence of recent violence and of an uncertain safety. Like his contemporary equivalents, he refuses to let the possible dangers override his desire to offer compassion and empathy, as well as practical action. Without the benefits of PPE, he engages with the wounded traveller, takes him to a place of safety, and offers to cover the on-going financial costs of his care. He is, indeed, a ‘Good Samaritan’. And those who hear are shocked, not because he is good, but because he is a Samaritan, a foreigner.
In what lies ahead for us during these coronavirus days, months, or years, we can either seek to develop or to regress. We have the choice of going back to tired stereotypes of ‘us and them’, or of partnering with those whose very difference inspires and creates the common good. Such differences go beyond the traditional delineations of colour, class, and creed. The so-called ‘foreigner’ in our midst is found in many guises, and not just in relation to place of birth. I suspect it is only through our own self-examination and willingness to embrace humility that we can become what it means to be ‘good’. The Samaritan of the parable does not seek the limelight or try to garner praise. He does what he does because that is he who he is. His willingness to be made vulnerable, putting himself at risk and then expressing his generosity, is characteristic of his very essence.
In recalibrating our perception of others, the examples of goodness in our midst are striking. Will we find ourselves changed by the example of the Dr Poornima Nairs or will we just turn back to our old ways? Only time will tell.