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OP-ED: The new national story

/ April 6th 2020
Front Foot

This is an opinion piece written by James MacAskill, Senior Strategist, MullenLowe London, on Covid-19 and how it is changing our understanding of patriotism and identity. MullenLowe is a member of our Front Foot network.

A century ago, the First World War taught the nation to remember the sacrifice of the few to safeguard the health of the many.

As our first true ‘national’ war, the conflict and its shared loss and sacrifice affected every household in the country. It built a collective story and identity that changed Britain.

Now, from Wuhan to Wigan, it’s clear to see that our understanding of patriotism and identity is undergoing a shift across the world, particularly here.

The indisputable ‘other’ is no longer in human form.

Moving away from celebrating victories of the military on the frontline against others toward a new fight against an invisible enemy.

The frontline is within a stone’s throw and the soldiers are behind you in the queue for Sainsbury’s.

The sacrifice being made by all those fighting COVID-19 within the NHS is unforeseen.

At all levels – from senior physician or scientist down to student nurse brought into the wards early or the retired nurse back for the first time in years.

The public outpouring of support for them and institution itself is also unprecedented.

Whether it be WhatsApp memes, signups to volunteer to help with the elderly or the surge in new requests for NHS career information we’re seeing from teens and those wanting new careers alike. Not to mention the millions that joined in the clapping on Wednesday night.

It’s clear that one of the benefits of the paradigm shift that is COVID-19 is the deserved pedestal the NHS as an institution and its staff have been put on, at last.

Proof that the best advertising for any brand is genuine advocacy from those that use it.

The NHS response to the crisis is also teaching the UK how to be one again, not to mention Adland.

Each of us required to make individual sacrifices to safeguard our one, and most integral, collective frame of reference. A, if not the, characteristic of our nation.

The National Health Service has once again become national.

Once we’ve quelled the growth in infections and can afford to take stock as a nation once more, we should think seriously about how to reward and reflect on the sacrifices made by those in our health service as any other defensive force. Perhaps even statues celebrating work of health and scientific professionals rather than generals and war leaders will emerge over the coming years.

This is a new kind of civic patriotism based on the values of the NHS and public health: mutual dependence, egalitarian values and learning.

No doubt something our NHS’ founder Nye Bevan himself would have been proud of.

Written by James MacAskill, Senior Strategist, MullenLowe London

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