Siobhan Benita

We can’t afford to let today’s acts of kindness be tomorrow’s memories


Siobhan Benita writes about how kindness must be at the heart of our politics, marking this year's Mental Health Awareness Week's focus on Kindness.

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This week is Mental Health Awareness Week and I was delighted to see that the theme this year is kindness. Way back in February, I proudly launched my Mayoral campaign by putting kindness at the heart of my vision. I felt it was important for London’s future then. I can’t think of anything more important now.

As we have seen during this pandemic, acts of compassion and kindness really can change lives but we shouldn’t limit these to neighbourly relations.  If we think boldly, we can put kindness and peoples’ well-being at the heart of our politics too and fundamentally change our society for the better.

As we went into lockdown in March, the UN released its World Happiness Report. It ranks 156 countries by how happy their citizens perceive themselves to be.  As in previous years, Nordic countries dominate the top slots, scoring strongly across all six measures: GDP per capita, social support, life expectancy, autonomy, generosity and absence of corruption.  

Reflecting on the success of the Nordic countries, the report concludes that there is no “secret sauce” to their happiness. Instead, there is a “general recipe” that everyone can follow:  non-corrupt, high-quality state institutions able to deliver what is promised and generous in taking care of citizens. 

The Covid19 pandemic is a tragedy.  Families and communities have lost loved ones to the virus and fear of contamination, financial uncertainty and social distancing are having a serious impact on the mental health of the nation. At the same time, the pandemic also creates a unique opportunity for us Brits to consider how we can create a better “recipe” for our citizens in the future.

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The proliferation of Mutual Aid groups has been one of the most heartening things to come out of the pandemic, with neighbours coming together to create local communities that help each other and support the most vulnerable.   And even in these darkest of times, our spirits have been lifted by daily news stories of acts of compassion.

We shouldn’t think of such acts as being confined to this period, as a special spirit for exceptional times.  Rather, we should be planning now for how we create a society that values this type of approach all of the time.  And we should demand that our policymakers do the same.  

In a crisis this complex, I recognise that very little is black and white and, as a former Civil Servant, I have tried to be constructive in my assessment of the Government’s handling.  What is clear is though is that the tragic outbreak in our care homes has been years in the making. 

Undervalued, underfunded and detached from the NHS, our social care system has been in desperate need of attention for decades.  All of us, including politicians of all colours, must place a higher value on the kindness and compassion of the caring professions and the vital role they play in the wellbeing of patients and patients’ families. We cannot wait for another global pandemic before throwing a “protective shield” around our most vulnerable citizens.

Rebuilding our economy will be a priority over the coming months. GDP per capita is an important factor in the World Happiness Report for good reason. But that doesn’t mean that we have to repeat past mistakes, chasing economic growth at the expense of fairness, equality, happiness and wellbeing. 

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The pandemic has exposed deep flaws in traditional thinking and now that we know better, we must do better - never forgetting that when push comes to shove, our welfare state isn’t good enough, low-skilled workers are actually key workers, green spaces are invaluable and doing things radically differently doesn’t have to take a lifetime.

Instead, with our new recipe, we should aim to build stronger communities, deepen social connections and see happiness not as a by-product of policy, but as a central objective itself.  By setting factors that crucial to our wellbeing, like excellent social support, as key aims of Government policy, we will create a host of opportunities.    

The Government would do well to recall the words of Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, when he ended his first support package announcement with the sentiment  “When this is over – and it will be over – we want to look back on this moment and remember the many small acts of kindness done by us, and to us”. 

Those are still important words.  As individuals, how we treat each other matters.  As decision-makers, what we value matters. However, we can’t afford to let today’s acts of kindness be tomorrow’s mere memories. We have to ensure that they are part of our future too. It’s on progressives to make that a reality.


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