THE NEW NIGHTMARE

Yesterday the Scottish Government produced its route map out of the Coronavirus “Lock-down”.  The message was clear. There is light at the end of the tunnel, we will meet again, but we don’t know when. You will get your freedom back, the freedom we have taken from you,  the freedom to associate, to work, to trade, to congregate, to socialise, to worship, to play, to travel, to welcome strangers, to visit and embrace your family and your loved ones. You will get that back, but only when we decide the time is right. Only when “The Science” tells us it safe to do so. And just in case you become too relaxed about it, if things change, we can reverse things at any point. So be warned.

From the beginning I felt that the prison term “lock-down” had more than a little resonance to the situation we were in. I think I have been right about that. Now we know that before being fully released we will be effectively be in an open prison, allowed out in stages, on day release, where we will be given some freedoms to demonstrate that we can use these responsibly. Once we have proved we can, we will be given more until we have full freedom, but even then, we will still be out on licence and liable to be brought back in at any moment. Too many Portobello incidents, and we will all be back in “lock-down”. That has been clear.

It is really hard to believe that all this is happening. But it is. It is really hard to believe that almost all good people have accepted it with barely a whimper of protest or question. But they have. It is hard to believe that the shaky models, the selected statistics, the loaded graphs, the unequal comparisons as well as that mysterious “R” number have been given such an uncritically free ride. The merest scratch would have shown that the case for the “lock-down” was and is based on the shakiest of foundations and would not withstand any serous intellectual challenge by people who know. Do you think that the government and all their advisers together could hold their case in an open debate with the likes of Jonathan Sumption, David Starkey, Lionel Shriver or Peter Hitchens? No neither do I.

It is unlikely that the politicians and their advisers will have the courage to admit that they made a mistake, an error of judgement, and even in a future enquiry they are likely to shield behind a Nike defence that it was “Right at that time” It is also unlikely that the general population, we who have invested so much in this sacrifice, will want to believe they have been fooled. But I think we have.

What truly scares me is the legacy of the “lock-down” which may survive for a long time after the whole thing has passed by and forgotten like any other seven-day wonder. We can see that legacy already being introduced into the “New Normal” with the continuation of that cruel and inhumane policy of “Social distancing”. Nicole Sturgeon said that Scotland should “take care not to slip back into old and bad ways of doing things”. She didn’t say what the bad ways were. Maybe it was just the filthy habit of not washing hands, or careless sneezing or spitting but I suspect she was hinting at a new normal where social distancing becomes the norm, where the fear of infection eclipses everything else, where we see every stranger as a possible carrier of a deadly disease, and we withdraw into our own bubbles, avoid embracing, touching, reaching out, offering handshakes or any form of physical expression of welcome or concern or comfort to others.

Welcome to the New Nightmare.    

DON’T STAY HOME

Our 80+ year old friend dropped a bag of compost round at our door this morning. We were able to catch her before she was off on her brisk daily walk. She is one of those exceptional octogenarians who has such an enormous energy for life and spends most of her days caring for others, people much younger than herself. She also spends her days in prayer. She wouldn’t stay at home. She told me of a couple she cares for whose family forbad them to go out. “But there is no one to forbid me “ she said with a smile.

From the start “Stay Home” really irritated me. I think it now makes me feel angry. I hated it at first because I hate being told what to do and I groaned each time I saw it. But it was much more than a personal annoyance. It seemed wrong. It seemed a bad idea all together. The more we learn and the more that is revealed, the more I am convinced that it was a thoroughly bad idea.

Reading a report this morning of studies done on the progress of the virus by The University of Maryland, Anglia Ruskin University, the University of Oxford amongst others, made it obvious. Sarah Knapton brought together a few strands of science which, in many ways turn out to be little more than common sense. It was what doctors knew long ago, that the sun was a healer, that getting out into the fresh air and wind, sleeping with the window open and exercise all supported your immune system and helped you to recover from illness. Viruses on the other hand fester in crowded spaces, in air conditioned rooms and ducts, behind closed doors, shut windows and pulled blinds.   

“Stay Home” was balmy.

But I now fear it was worse that that. It was created without any thought of what it would mean. “Stay Home” is fine depending on what home is. It is fine if your home has room and you are not crowded, you live in harmony with your house mates, you have a garden and easy access to open space and can enjoy the new stillness, watch the plants grow and listen to the birds singing. It’s not, if your home is a flat on the thirteenth floor, crammed with difficult house mates who don’t get on, not to mention those partial to abuse, with little light or fresh air and no access to any outdoor space far less one with grass or trees or birds or wild life.  And when the bold did venture out there was the police to send them back in. Compelling people, without thought, to lock themselves in for weeks on end like this is a shocking and cruel thing to do and no one should be surprised when it turns out that Coronavirus has had its worst impact in poorer urban areas.

It was the worst possible advice.

1968

1968 was a momentous year. I was a student and, in the summer break, working in a cheese factory close to our home on a west coast island. There were milk deliveries each day so the factory worked a seven-day week. After seven full days working, you had a day off. So on the morning of August 21st, my long lie was abruptly disturbed by my father at the bottom of the stairs shouting up to all those still in bed  “Russia has invaded Czechoslovakia”.  The news sent shock waves through my body. There is something about hearing the news of some dramatic event by word of mouth that carries a dramatic tension missing from news you hear over the wires.  When you get around to reading it in the paper or watching it on TV, When Kate Adie or John Simpson get to the scene, you know it’s under control and you can relax. It probably won’t affect me. Normal transmission can be resumed.

1968 was historic, at least in my memory, and not just because it was the year when I first asked a girl out. There was Martin Luther King’s assassination in April and Robert Kennedy’s in November. There was Vietnam, which was on the screen every night, the Tet offensive and the protests in Grosvenor square. There was the massacre at My Lai, though we didn’t hear about that till much later.  There was Apollo 8 and the Beatles white album played over and over in our studio at college. There was Enoch Powell referencing the Tigris and the black panther athletes with their black gloved salutes and then there was the Prague spring which gave its name to every spring after and brutally turned into winter with guns and tanks.

One of the major events during that year, which moved into the next, was Hong Kong Flu pandemic, which accounted for over a million deaths worldwide. In the UK 80,000 people are reported to have died from it yet, strangely, interested in all the other world events, as I was at the time, I have no memory of it. I don’t remember it being talked about or on the news. There was no shut downs or masks or mass testing or tracing as far as I was aware. It must have been just one of these things that a nation and its people live with. I do wonder if there was a lock-down, a policy of inverted quarantine adopted then, if it would have made any difference, in the same way that I wonder if this lock-down has or will.  I really doubt it has. True the spread of infection will have been slowed down. That makes sense. But like the dams we tried to build on the burn, when we were little, they only slowed the water for a little while. It was fun but it didn’t work. You can’t stop the waves with sheer will power that’s for sure. King Canute knew that.

Let us go

Walking through the park in the beautiful yet eerie stillness of the morning, the words to Psalm 122 come to mind. I know them off by heart and recite them to myself. I also know them in the 1620  metrical form. We sang it as children to the 18c tune St Paul  with the almost clumsy double note at the end of the line in the second verse, to cope with the extra syllable. I remember singing it on one summer Sunday morning  on the Isle of Muck. We had travelled earlier in a launch from our home in the nearby island of Eigg and scrambled over the slippy rocks to be treated to tea and fresh scones before making our way up to the school building. Through the tall windows behind the make shift pulpit, some sheep had left off their grazing to stare at the strange creatures standing inside singing. Somehow the relevance of the psalm, with the tribes gathering in Jerusalem and the houses packed together, so far away in space and time was quite lost on me. But today they have a special resonance.

The Psalm moves beautifully and quickly from the first person to the second to the third and then to the destination the home of the King. “I was glad when they said to me let us go to the house of the Lord”. It is full of movement in a single direction, a going up, a coming together, a closeness, a sense of belonging, and a sense of security, prosperity and of peace. You know that the Psalm writer is not describing something ephemeral, virtual or abstract. He is not talking about an idea, but an actual physical event and the joy that the invitation gives him.

Deprived of that special blessing, meeting each week together in church, I feel the loss so keenly today. This absence makes the heart go much more than a little bit fonder and the virtual replacements only make the longing for the reality that bit more intense.  We have a weekly digital service and a sermon from one of the finest young preachers I know and afterwards we have digital coffee in cyberspace with our online home group. It is astonishing what technology has achieved and the blessings that can come from it, but it just doesn’t compare.   

And I wonder why the church has, without, it seems any protest or question, followed the government instructions, cancelled services and closed buildings and so easily surrendered this most precious thing.   It is not, of course, surprising that a secular government would view these gatherings as an unnecessary luxury in a crisis, while bicycle shops, pet shops, DIY  centres, and off-licences on the other hand, are seen as essential to life. It is surprising, that the churches themselves think so too.

Still, in the vacuum, with social distancing, in the new normal, I will pray for the peace and security of Jerusalem. “For the sake of the house of the Lord our God I will seek your good”

The Scream 3: Going to war

When you take your country into war you must first decide if you are likely to win it. If the odds against success are great then it’s probably wise to think again. Peace with its inevitable compromise might just be the best option. When you drag the country into a “lock-down” you should know how to come out of it. The inability of our government to know how to do that, must be one its most damning shortcomings.

The Lock-down

For anyone who has had a connection with a prison establishment the term “Lockdown” will carry a lot of resonance. It is an emergency procedure where inmates are literally locked back in their cells to allow some form of order to be restored. Why the government and the media and everyone else, it seems, have adopted this term in the Co-vid crisis is intriguing. It is not a lockdown. Any locks that are thrown are done from the inside of people’s homes. No one, other than those in secure institutions, are actually locked down.

But when words are used and given creative new meanings, it is inevitable that we smell a rat. We have George Orwell to thank for that. When specific instructions and guidance is given by experts, by people who know, to the rest of us, plain folks, it is inevitable that I become cynical.  I have my big brother to thank for that.

Of course, there are other terms that could have been created for the effort, so why this one? Could it be that it carries a barely concealed hint of authoritarianism? After all, while a government’s chief responsibility is to protect it’s citizens from bullies within and without, the lure to control them must be a very persistent and powerful one.  A compliant controlled population is easy to manager especially if you get them to do what you want them to do. If you can get people to stay in their houses then at a stroke it deals with a whole host of policing issues, crowds, football hooligans, protest marches, music festivals and religious gatherings.  It must be very seductive. And I must be very cynical.

But I do wonder if anyone has actually thought of the effect this kind of language might have on the population? I wonder if anyone has actually considered where this most unusual and probably unprecedented action will lead? I wonder if anyone actually knows what it means to force social beings, who thrive by the interaction with others, in a whole network of relationships, not to be social? Well we should do. We have plenty of evidence of what happens to human beings when they are forcibly placed in solitary confinement. It destroys the person. It could be the most inhumane form of punishment. And has anyone thought about how humiliating is to have work and being able to work but being prohibited from doing so because your work is considered non-essential. The fact that it is the way you provide for your family seems not to count. That the government will offer compensation for employed and self employed, who are affected, sounds good, but it only rubs salt in the wound. Being paid not to work is the final straw.  And of course, the real tragedy is that we cannot know for certain if these extreme measures will actually make any difference at all.

As for me, I am enormously privileged. I share this large house with two others and we get on well. We have a garden front and back and 100 yards from a beautiful garden (which the authorities would find difficult to seal off). I work from home and have done for many years and I know how to organise my time. I have many interests and ploys and can easily be absorbed in them. So, it is easy for me. I am sure it is also easy for those who have made the decision to force the shut-down but I shudder to think of what it will mean for possibly the vast majority, those in cramped accommodation in high rise flats with young children and those coming to the end of their lives to spend these days in solitude estranged from those they love. It sounds like a particular cruel form of punishment. It is not of course, but it sounds like it and calling it a “lock-down” reinforces that.

There does seem to be a complete disconnect from the middle-class office workers retiring with their laptops to the leafy suburbs and those who actually work in manufacturing, agriculture, construction or the energy industries- ie the ones who actually power the economy and who now are told that there work isn’t really important. And this is where the divide is so scary, because if the economy is driven on the rocks then all the services fail and the biggest gobbler of public finance, the NHS, will be the first to suffer. So to protect the NHS we may actually be dealing it a death blow. It’s all been said before, of course, and better.  

It is tragic and I hope I am wrong, but I genuinely worry that the treatment might end up killing the patient.

Crawford Mackenzie