Every death in a pandemic is tragic and every loss is regretted. But even in these days when so many families are grieving, there is something particularly cruel about the news of Captain Sir Tom Moore’s death, shortly after hiring Covid.
The 100-year-old former soldier, and his indomitable efforts to raise money for NHS charities, circling his garden in a walker, were a rare ray of light in the twilight of last year. It was his optimism, as well as the silent stoicism often found in war veterans who have seen what he should have seen, that captured the imagination. His constant refrain that the sun would eventually rise, that tomorrow would be better, that together we could accomplish miracles, resonated at a time when people urgently needed to hear it.
But it also did something invaluable to change the perceptions of older people and their place in society, during a pandemic that saw some nasty prejudices about the value of older people’s lives compared to younger people come to light. He was physically fragile, but clearly had a lot to give. In his determination and selflessness, he embarrassed many people at a fraction of his age. Watching him take those last, strenuous steps of his sponsored walk, accompanied toward the end by an honor guard made up of servicemen, was watching the years roll back and reveal the youngest man he should have been and still remains.
“I come from Yorkshire,” he told the Observer, when asked if he had exhausted it. “We don’t give up.” When he was gentleman for the Queen in July, there was something terribly moving about the gathering of contemporaries; her quiet constancy finding an echo in his. It embodied the motto used by a younger generation of military veterans to encourage former soldiers to volunteer during the pandemic or participate in public life: Stand up, serve again.
Many ordinary people, of course, have done extraordinary things during the course of this pandemic, and Captain Tom was always quick to downplay their efforts and praise the heroism of others. He did not seek or expect fame; When he originally set out, at 99, to keep moving and raise a modest £ 1,000, his family had imagined that, at best, his efforts could make it to his local newspaper. In the end, her story went global, helping to raise almost £ 39 million for NHS Charities Together.
But if people around the world were inspired by his efforts, in turn he was clearly inspired by the NHS, to which he constantly professed his gratitude. He belonged to that generation of Britons who still vividly remember the days before they were created, when getting sick meant worrying about both the doctor’s bill and the prognosis. He marveled at the care he received throughout his life, most recently for skin cancer and a broken hip that shook his confidence in walking, as well as the nurses who cared for his late second wife after he succumb to dementia.
His desire to give back was a testament to the place the NHS holds in so many British hearts, as well as to his own character. When the news came over the weekend that he had been admitted to the hospital, had been ill for a few weeks with pneumonia, and then tested positive for Covid, a nation hoped against hope that he would be saved. But that was not to be.
Yet his legacy lives on in every patient cared for, every individual doing their best during this pandemic, and every hope for a brighter tomorrow that future generations can live to see.
• Gaby Hinsliff is a columnist for The Guardian
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism