It was once part of my job to sit through half a dozen summer and winter graduations each year. They can be long. And if it is not a member of your own family, less than riveting.
But there were two highlights. The first was Dickie Attenborough as Chancellor. He opened the proceedings, and would make us all cry, re-telling the same fictitious story of his meeting a woman in Africa collecting garbage to pay for education. She was real enough. It was just he never actually met her.
It was a scene he had watched in a television documentary once. He retold it as if he had been there in person. We knew he hadn’t, but we wept every time. The other highlight was usually the speech given by whoever was being awarded an honorary degree. One has stuck in my memory .
It began; “When you say goodbye, you all usually say to one another, ‘take care’.
“Let me warn and advise you now, that ‘taking care’ is the road to a half- life, which will suck all the colour and energy and interest out of the world. It will imprison you in the gilded cage of fear and anxiety. You will never be fully alive. If you will take any advice from me, I suggest to you that you don’t try to protect yourself and each other from life – instead, when you say goodbye say instead, ‘Take Risks’ ! If you risk nothing you will find nothing. Don’t take care, take risks.”
At the time, about fifteen years ago, I thought this was a bit risqué; a bit over the top. Today, I can hardly think of anything more important.
When this virus first struck, few people had any facts. There were some very good reasons to be afraid. The Imperial College model foretold half a million deaths. To avoid overwhelming the hospitals drastic measures were taken. The risks of doing nothing were too great.
But now we have new information. Sweden did nothing more than a bit of social distancing and no great disaster overtook them. We know now that 80% of the deaths have involved pre-existing conditions, in other words, the virus has shortened lives that were about to end by a short period. Over a third suffered from diabetes. The large majority of people died with Covid, not of Covid.
The annual mortality rate in the UK is about 650,000 people. If we look at the numbers of deaths ‘caused by’’ rather than ‘accompanied by Covid 19, they are about 20% of the 35,000 recorded; about 7,000.
Every death is a tragedy, but the question is being asked if it is proportionate to close down the whole health service endangering the lives of countless heart and cancer patients. 2.1 million operations were postponed in April. Dental care and relief has been inaccessible to the whole population.
We are bombarded with the death totals, but only for Covid. Other diseases which are far more dangerous are ignored. I have only just found out that across the world TB killed 1.5 million people in 2018. There was no lock- down for TB- anywhere.
Collateral deaths and the threat to civil liberties have caused the most anxieties about the actions of the state.
Lord Sumption, a former Lord Chief Justice and has spoken about the danger of failing to guard civil liberties.
He warns us that there has been no previous occasion when the whole country has been placed under house arrest. He is worried that fear has been whipped up by the media, and has terrorised the population by giving an exaggerated fear of risk.
“People don’t pause to ask whether the action will work, they don’t ask themselves whether the cost will be worth paying – they want action anyway.
“Anyone who has studied history will recognise here the classic symptoms of collective hysteria.
“Hysteria is infectious. We are working ourselves up into a lather in which we exaggerate the threat and stop asking ourselves whether the cure may be worse than the disease.”
It is not up to the state to tell us what risks we can take with our bodies.
His solution was to invite all those who believed that the risk of going out into public was too great, to remain self-isolating at home; but to allow everyone else to get on with life.
One fact of life not much talked about, is that the virus is not going to go away. Hiding in our homes is not going to stop a second, third or fourth wave. It just delays it- a bit. And in delaying it, it causes death, misery and for many bankruptcy on an increasing scale. 40% of the furloughed jobs in the USA will not return.
There might or might not be an antidote, though there is none to AIDS or to flu.
Our reaction to death divides us into three groups with a different attitude to risk. Those who believe in life after death, and treat this life as a short or long preparation for whatever comes next; then there are the stoic fatalists, courageous enough to look life in the face and get on with living until the inevitable moment comes, brought on by whatever cause at whatever time.
And finally those who are worried about being kept safe; terrified by risk.
But there is no real safety. Everything we do involves some risk. Life without risk is just another description of imprisonment. Take care by all means, but reclaim your life and take risks.