As we hang up our new calendars and open our new diaries, I expect than many of us will be glad 2020 is over. We will be looking forward to the New Year and what that might bring, hoping for an end to the restrictions we are experiencing due to COVID-19.

Looking back, COVID has highlighted the interconnected nature of human lives. An event on one side of the globe soon impacts around the other side of the world. The actions of individuals can have huge implications for others that were neither intended nor even considered. An individual’s carelessness, lack of thought or concern for others can bring devastating effects to families.

Yet COVID has also shown us that many of the difficulties and challenges we face that are impossible to overcome individually can be resolved when we work together. It has been a remarkable international effort to produce the vaccines which are now being offered to protect us from the virus. Chinese scientists discovered the genetic code of the virus itself. The Pfizer vaccine (the first to be approved and administered in the world) was developed in Germany by a Turkish couple, funded by a US company, trials were conducted in 150 different countries and it was manufactured in Belgium. The first approved dose was administered in the UK to an English patient by a Filipino nurse.

The pandemic has raised the profile of those who devote their lives to others. Earlier last year we stood and clapped the heroines and heroes of the NHS, care staff and other key workers who put themselves and their families’ health and lives at risk for the sake of others. We have seen the importance of delivery drivers and those who ensure the supermarket shelves are stocked.

There were amazing individual efforts to bring help and support to those in need, exemplified by Captain Tom, and 12 carers at the Court House Retirement Home in Cheddar, who lived in the care home to ensure residents remained COVID free. Theirs was a real sacrifice living away from their own families for over twelve weeks for the sake of others.

In contrast, we have seen how some have pushed the COVID rules to breaking point, often with the consequences of spreading illness and the closure of the very businesses and venues they desired to be open.

Perhaps what we have learned most is that we are social beings needing the company as well as the support of one another.

The pandemic has also highlighted how fragile our lives can be, throwing a spotlight on poverty, the importance of free school meals, food banks and alike.

So, at the start of the year, as the vaccines are rolled-out, we tentatively begin to look ahead to some kind of normality. Last April and May we spoke of a ‘new normal’, but what might that ‘new normal’ look like?

Will the new normal be self-centred, a ‘me first’ normal, a normal where the needs and concerns of the poor, and people exploited, abused or voiceless come second, third or fourth, behind our own self-interests and desires? Or will the new normal be one where it is normal to empathise, support and have care and compassion for others.

Will it be normal to be outraged that foodbanks have become an increasingly necessary part of our social support systems? Will we want to do more than place a couple of items in the supermarket’s foodbank basket, and address the reasons why foodbank usage grew by 74% over the five years to March 2020 – that is, before COVID?

Will we ask, is it normal for the number of children without a permanent home to be growing? According to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, the number of children without a permanent home rose from 72,590 in the second quarter of 2010 to 128,200 in the first quarter of 2020. Will we want to reverse this trend in the number of children who have no stable and secure place to call home?

According to The Health Foundation, in January 2020, (before coronavirus began to impact on the UK) more than one in six patients were waiting more than 18 weeks for routine medical treatment. They state that, “to meet the 18-week standard for newly referred patients and clear the backlog of patients who will have already waited longer than 18 weeks, the NHS would have needed to treat an additional 500,000 patients a year for the next 4 years.” So, in 2021 and beyond, will it be normal to see people waiting for months and months in pain, discomfort and anxiety for hospital appointments or will our new normal be one where we are prepared to make sacrifices enabling us to invest in our health care services to prevent this?

Many of these issues are beyond the scope of each of us as individuals but not when we work together as a community and a nation. Nevertheless, we can begin by ensuring that we treat everyone we meet with dignity and respect regardless of who they are or where they are from, sacrificing self for the welfare of others.

We’ve been celebrating the birth of a baby who taught us to love one another. So, next week when we pack away the Christmas decorations, out of sight and out of mind for the next eleven months, let us not also pack away the meaning of Christmas. Instead, let us make sure the lights continue to shine in each of us bringing brightness to those whose lives are dark, and may we live out the Christmas message of peace and good will to all.

Rev Martyn Sanders