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Opinion

Amid competing voices, we need a calm leader in the Covid era

During the on-going crisis and fallout of Covid-19, John Bird argues that we need a clear and calm leader to unite our society

Probably the noise of conflicting voices has gone up because of Covid, with the still unsorted problems it has thrown us. “Cacophony” is a nice word to capture that sense of many people speaking together while not necessarily listening to each other. “Harmony” seems to have been put on the back burner.

Always on the lookout for an image or an experience, I went to my favourite London gallery, The National Gallery, last week and found the very image I was after. An image of people taking their eye off the ball, of getting lost in things other than the big issues of the moment.

The painting I refer to must be one of the greatest in The National Gallery, and it’s called The Adoration of the Golden Calf. It shows Moses throwing down the tablets that he has been given by God on Mount Sinai. He is angry and outraged because, whilst he’s been getting on with the business of the future of his people, these people have melted down their gold jewellery and made a golden calf to worship.

Irrespective of political complexion we need to get Covid behind us

I have looked at Nicolas Poussin’s painting on so many occasions and never miss a chance to see it when in The National. It always seems to tell a story about energies placed in the wrong direction, and the weakness of human beings who get lost on the small and ignore the big.

Of course one could, if one wanted to be too biblically literal, ask who our current Moses is that is leading us out of the House of Bondage? I shudder at awarding this role to anyone at the moment. Clear thinking seems to be going through a thin time.

But probably it is the competing voices, the on and off-ness of discussions about what direction to take, that is most disturbing. The dismissing of the essential problem we need to face: that Covid and its damage are still washing over us and still trying us. We are not out of the woods, and clarity is not apparent. Hence for the moment we don’t seem to have a Moses to help us through this difficult time.

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If only there was a way that we could embrace uncertainty, and mix within it some generosity of spirit. Not so that we could all simply be nice to each other, but so we can pause and be dispassionate about the future.

As I have often said before, I don’t know that we have the luxury of point scoring. We need a unity and I can’t see a call for that getting much air-time.

Irrespective of political complexion we need to get Covid behind us, and we need to insist on that being our main task. And the damage that is flowing, and has flowed, out of the pandemic needs to be tackled without rancour.

Time for a quiet, measured, careful assessment ofthe problems we are going through as a society. And an addressing of the harm that Covid has brought to us. An audit of the damage that has been done and the thoughtfulness we require to find the solutions.

I, though, am not unguilty of making loud noises. My loud noise has been around the need to keep people in their homes. To stop Covid-inspired evictions of people unable to pay rent or mortgage. The Big Issue’s campaign is to prevent mass homelessness; to stop people falling into homelessness that then costs perhaps two or three times more than keeping them supported at home. Life without a home undoes the fabric of society for too many people, with the knock-on effects harming education and health, among other things.

I certainly have never been involved in anything bigger and more needing of our attention.

So I am a part of the problem in terms of noise and the cacophony; forgive me, but this is The Big One for me. Probably because when I fell homeless as a child I saw how it destroyed our family, leading us kids to go into care, and scarring us all for the rest of our lives.

I would not wish upon anyone the suffering of children that results when the family unit can’t be held together. To see how difficult it is to weather the damage it does to your relationships later in life. That harms and limits opportunities for the future.

I don’t want a lot of new little Johnny Birds running around and taking a mountain of time getting over the grief handed out by homelessness.

So to me this is the big, big one: if The Big Issue can help lead this fight through all of the noise and the point scoring then it will have done the greatest thing it could do in this trying time.

Recently I wrote that I need art to top me up, to make me feel whole and human. My wandering into The National Gallery, truly a magnificent asset that is owned by the public, was not necessarily to find an image for our noisome times. So I recommend Poussin’s masterpiece for its art; and its message.

As it says in the Bible (I paraphrase): “Don’t swallow a camel and choke on a gnat.” In other words, we need to revisit our priorities. What a good piece of advice for our current cacophony.

John Bird is the founder and editor in chief of The Big Issue.

Hundreds of thousands of people are at risk of losing their homes right now. One UK household is being made homeless every three-and-a-half hours.

You can help stop a potential avalanche of homelessness by joining The Big Issue’s Stop Mass Homelessness campaign. Here’s how:

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