Hailing national health heroes
In these grim times, good news is rare. But there are occasional heart-warming exceptions. In Britain, the heroes of the covid-19 crisis are the employees of the National Health Service, fighting to save lives – to use the now standard wartime metaphor - in the “front line” of hospitals. And now their determination and bravery has been dramatically highlighted – and rewarded – by an outspoken Syrian refugee.
Last week Hassan Akkad, originally from Damascus, recorded a 90-second video on his Twitter feed, directly addressing Prime Minister Boris Johnson and expressing his feelings of shock and betrayal at being excluded from the NHS staff bereavement scheme.
Akkad, who arrived in the UK in 2015, has been working as a cleaner in his local hospital in London, and between shifts has won admiration for photographing colleagues who are battling the pandemic. What has really attracted attention, however, was his short but powerful clip, posted last Wednesday.
"I felt shocked to find out that your government decided to exclude myself and my colleagues who work as cleaners and porters and social care workers," Akkad complained. "We are all on minimum wage, you have decided to exclude us from the bereavement scheme, so if I die from coronavirus my partner isn't allowed indefinite leave to remain."
Within hours, his video had nearly a million views, and the government had changed tack, announcing that such employees would benefit in future from the same rights accorded to British nationals who worked for the NHS. Previously workers coming to the UK from outside the EU had to pay a fee to use the health service. That will soon increase to £624 – two weeks’ pay at the lowest levels. It was an embarrassing U-turn.
This is a highly sensitive issue. Since the start of the covid crisis in the UK, and since the national lockdown began on March 23, NHS employees have been widely praised for their selfless sacrifice. It has become an instant tradition that every Thursday evening, people gather outside their homes across the country to applaud medical staff – while observing social distancing measures.
The NHS, whose resources have been undermined by a decade of Conservative austerity measures, still occupies a cherished place in Britain’s self-image, having been founded by the Labour government that was elected at the end of the second world war in 1945.
And it still enjoys an extremely positive reputation, especially if compared to the government’s overall handling of the pandemic. Johnson and his administration have been widely criticized, even vilified, for being slow to react and conveying confusingly mixed messages to the public – as well as the UK seeing the worst death-rate in Europe.
The latest damaging episode involves demands for Dominic Cummings, a powerful but deeply unpopular Johnson adviser, to be sacked after breaching the distancing rules shortly after they were first imposed. The prime minister, however, chose to simply defend him, disdainfully ignoring public fury.
Akkad’s contribution was to highlight an issue with wide social and moral resonance: Britons have come to understand that the NHS is disproportionately staffed by Black, Asian, Minority and Ethnic workers. BAME communities have also suffered disproportionately in dying from coronavirus, with economic disadvantages, poor education and cramped living conditions thought to be key factors. Figures showed that black people in the UK are more than four times more likely to die than white people.
"Cleaners and porters and social care workers are disproportionately non-UK nationals,” as Akkad told the BBC, “and they are on minimum wage, so I feel like the government always is after the weakest in society - the working class, the immigrants."
Akkad had a rightly-deserved reputation even before last week. In 2016 he won an award for re-telling the story of his arrival from Syria in an vivid documentary film. In 2012 he was arrested and tortured by the Assad regime before fleeing. His refugee experiences including crossing to Greece from Turkey by sea, buying false passports, spending time in a refugee camp in Calais and finally being granted the right to remain in Britain.
The 32-year-old applied to become a cleaner at Whipps Cross hospital as soon as the illness hit the UK. He said he wanted to spend his time disinfecting covid-19 wards as his way of giving back to Britain during the crisis and supporting frontline workers.
He clearly has an instinctive understanding of how to use the media to make an impact. It helps that he speaks fluent English. Last month he gave a primetime TV interview, saying his Syrian origins ensured he had been used to social distancing – from his loved ones – for years, thus humanizing the suffering of his own countrymen for an audience unfamiliar with the Middle East.
Britain, and the world, may well be hearing more from him. “This will not be the last time you will hear from me,” Akkad declared in yet another popular video, “because I have a platform now and I’m going to use it for the greater good.”