Kevin Lewis discusses the war in Ukraine and how fortunate we are in the UK to be untouched by such events.
A week may be a long time in politics (sic). But the intervals between my successive copy deadlines for this column seem to get shorter with every issue. I penned my first regular column in the dental press 41 years ago this very month. It has see-sawed between being monthly and fortnightly ever since.
That probably adds up to quite a lot of words. But to misquote Eric Morecambe, I have probably just been using the same words, but in a different order.
In my defence, sometimes a lot is happening and sometimes very little is happening that is worth commenting upon.
But on this occasion so much has happened in the last month. Anything I might say seems pathetically trivial and inconsequential.
I refer of course to the events unfolding on the soil of, and to the people of Ukraine. Listening to their stories and seeing glimpses of what the survivors are living through, the ups and downs of living and working here in the UK suddenly seem less important and less worthy of our regular complaints and protestations.
Each day provides us with life lessons in resilience, courage, tenacity and the full panoply of human values; from the very best to the very worst.
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When you lose almost everything, perhaps it becomes easier to see and appreciate what you have left? Viewing all this human and physical devastation from afar, it seems unworthy for us to have so much. And yet to also continually covet more.
The timing of Russia’s latest invasion of Ukraine has been the subject of much speculation. But slipstreaming the Covid-19 pandemic has compounded the knock-on effects. Seismic events such as these have the capacity to change our lives. Some more than others, of course. It is the personal impact both directly and indirectly, at the time and in the years that follow, that shapes how we view them and the ways we are changed by them.
It occurs to me that my columns in the dental press come against the backdrop of an extraordinary four decades of history; the Iran-Iraq War; the Falklands War; the break-up of the Soviet Union and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall; (former) Czechoslavakia’s so-called ‘Velvet Revolution’ in 1989; the 9/11 Twin Towers attack in New York; the Global Financial Crisis and major regional conflicts like the wars in the Gulf, the Balkans and Afghanistan… I could go on (the list is both endless and depressing). And now Ukraine (again).
In recent times we have witnessed a property tycoon and TV personality in the White House, acting like a comedian. And now a real-life comedian and TV personality in Ukraine acting like a politician and demonstrating jaw-dropping leadership and global statesmanship in the process.
Viewed another way, I am reminded (not for the first time) just how fortunate my generation here in the UK is. As well as how relatively untouched most of us – myself included – have been by world events that have so profoundly impacted others.
My grandparents’ generation lived through two world wars. In between which came another deadly global pandemic (‘Spanish Flu’), an economic Great Depression and a few years later, the Wall Street Crash. How unlucky was that?
My father spent most of World War II serving in south east Asia, missing the birth and first few years of my older brother’s life. After his return to UK shores, I was only nine years old when he died.
Life does not always seem fair. But I appreciate that others, on reading this, have every right to say: ‘But at least he came home and had those nine years’. And so did I, of course.
The enforced separation of so many young families (and older ones too) in Ukraine was a powerful reminder of that. And the anguish of not knowing the fate of loved ones called to mind the visionary words of John Milton, around the time of yet another conflict much closer to home (the English Civil War in the mid-1600s): ‘They also serve who only stand and wait’.
But as we are all aware, there are multiple ‘cost of living’ pressures building up in the UK. Also with the certainty that they will get progressively worse during 2022.
Everyone will feel them. But let’s be honest, most of us in and around dentistry will not bear the full brunt of them. My meagre contribution is a strengthened resolve to be more appreciative of how fortunate we are in so many respects. And to be less ready to moan about things that don’t go our way.
When others are in harm’s way and/or don’t even have the barest fundamentals of safety, shelter, water and food, and are stripped of everything they own apart from the clothes they stand up in, our grumblings about PPE, UDAs or the British weather seem a bit churlish.
A daily feature of the Russian narrative to the Ukraine conflict has been a recurring pattern of saying one thing while doing another. And doing things nefariously under the smokescreen of doing something altogether different. Perhaps my bull***t antennae have become over-sensitised by recent events.
But in early February the UK government announced its plans to simplify and streamline the ORE assessment process. Overseas dentists can become registered in the UK and able to work here.
If the process becomes anything as ‘simplified’ and ‘streamlined’ as the one whereby Ukrainian refugees can be welcomed into the homes of willing UK residents, the dentists stranded in the ORE vortex shouldn’t hold their breath.
These ORE changes are presented as a necessary urgent response to the imminent end of the longstanding system of recognition of EU qualifications, occasioned by Brexit. While technically true, the plan also needs understanding in the underlying context of the current backlog and NHS access crisis.
I was reminded of previous occasions when the UK government was scouring the world for dentists willing and able to leave behind the needs of patients in their own countries – often less wealthy and under-resourced countries, to our shame – in order to solve the short-term workforce needs and political pressures here.
It tends to happen whenever access problems here are becoming politically embarrassing. Or when contractual arrangements or changes are meeting a chorus of disapproval from the profession.
We currently hear such noises offstage from all four countries of the UK. And we are fast approaching panic stations.
On a previous occasion the search was on for 1,000-1,500 additional dentists willing to come to the UK and work in the NHS. The veiled threat was that if dentists here weren’t willing to work under the arrangements on offer at that time, there were plenty of non-UK dentists who would happily sign on the dotted line tomorrow.
One MP in the recent Parliamentary debate made the obvious point that UK dentistry is experiencing a silent privatisation. And with every month of prevarication, more dentists and more patients slide quietly into the private sector.
Another MP cited a dentist constituent in explaining that even practices that maintain a significant NHS commitment, despite all the problems, are only able to do so because of the private work they do. This subsidises the loss-making NHS work and thereby props up access to the NHS without it costing the government a penny.
Without publicly acknowledging it, the government now recognises this invisible subsidy as an essential part of the solution.
It is both admirable and uplifting that so many people in the UK have demonstrated their support for the people of Ukraine. Especially those who have done so much, often at significant personal cost, without making a song and dance about it. Rather than some organisations and celebrities who (for my taste) have been a bit too busy virtue-signalling.
Somebody recently suggested that anyone providing goods or services for Ukrainian people arriving into the UK might consider doing so pro-bono (without charge).
This concept is already familiar to NHS dentists in England and Wales. They have been propping up NHS dentistry in this way since 2006.
But on a more serious and responsible note, we can all do something to smooth the road for others. Whether they are enduring hardships that we are spared, or are newly arrived from Ukraine. Or if they are simply struggling to make ends meet.
Every little helps.
Catch previous Kevin Lewis columns
- The law of unintended consequences.