There is no easy way out of lockdown


Lockdown is a contract. Not one we entered into voluntarily but we understood the terms.

If we played by the rules and did as ministers and medics asked, we would eventually reap the rewards. After two months of patience and forbearance on our part, government is upholding its end of the bargain. 

This week will be very different in Scotland. A thrilling breeze of freedom will run through the scorching days and muggy evenings of this uncommonly hot Spring. Families will be able to come closer than they have in weeks. No kisses or hugs yet, but just that glimpse of a loved one, in person and not through a garble of pixels, will be joyous. FaceTime is no substitute for a real face. 

Barbecues are back on, though numbers must be limited and social distancing observed. Garden centres have thrown open the doors to their emporia of sweet magnolias and exquisitely tacky outdoor ornaments. For followers of the Marie Kondo philosophy, the best news of all is that council tips are once again accepting all those possessions that don’t spark joy. (That six tonnes of panic-bought wholewheat pasta doesn’t count.)

Our lives are not back to normal. Any situation where Scottish pubs are closed while government encourages us to enjoy ‘archery… croquet… horse-riding’ is distressingly far from normal. Most businesses stay shuttered, with staff told to work from home where possible. Football is suspended and schools are a long way from full classrooms.

We are loitering in the interregnum between full lockdown and a resumption of normal life that we fear may never come. As such, the elation of the next few days might pass quickly into frustration and even resentment at the thickets of rules and restrictions that still ensnarl our daily lives. This period is going to be much more delicate than the first two months of lockdown.

When the Prime Minister and First Minister imposed this national quarantine they did so amid frightening news of mass fatalities from Italy and Spain, and epidemiological modelling that showed us next in the firing line. Most of us were too afraid for our lives and those of our loved ones to put up much resistance. 

In acknowledging the progress made against the virus, ministers know they are opening themselves to more dissent from the measures they have implemented. As people become less afraid, they will grow intolerant of the very lockdown which has made it possible for them to feel less afraid. Covid-19 still stumps the finest researchers in the world but it is nowhere near as impenetrable as the thought processes of the human mind. 

Nicola Sturgeon admitted she was ‘nervous’ about easing the restrictions. 

As she put it: ‘If too many of us change our behaviour a bit more than these changes are designed to allow, we could see the virus spread quickly again and we will be back to square one. And the consequences of that will be measured, not just in more time spent in lockdown – it will be measured in lost lives too…

‘I want everyone to enjoy these changes – you have more than earned it. But I am asking you to please do so responsibly. I am appealing to your judgment and your sense of solidarity to each other.’

Whatever you might think of her leadership or her politics, knowing that every decision you make comes with a wide margin of error in lives saved or lost would keep the best of us awake at night. Her fear that, given a little we will take a lot, is well-founded in human psychology. It’s the biscuit tin dilemma: tell your children they can have a biscuit and you know there’s a decent chance they’ll take more than one. 

It is imperative that we resist that temptation. Covid-19 has not gone away. It is lying in wait for us to make a mistake, like the masked madman of a horror movie. The moment we think he’s dead and turn our backs, he will sit bolt upright behind us. 

Throwing away all our hard work at this critical juncture would be a reckless act of selfishness. We all want this to be over. We all want to get back on with our lives. Coronavirus isn’t a conspiracy to thwart the happiness of any one of us. It is a collective threat that calls upon us to stick together in a collective response. 

Some wish away the lockdown by pointing to the fatality figures. This is a disease that mostly kills over-80s and people with pre-existing conditions. The cost to the economy and to the well-being of the healthy majority is too great to save lives that are approaching the end or of lower quality anyway. This is a grim way to think but rest assured it is exactly how some are thinking. 

Human life cannot be reduced to a cost/benefit analysis. The love of children for their parents or a sister for her sickly brother does not yield to the cool analysis of a spreadsheet. We are not purely rational beings; our emotions, impulses and values must be factored into the equation.

However irksome this may be for those who think in terms of financial outlays and opportunity costs, it is a good thing that we do not surrender our ethical judgements to a rigid calculation. In the give and take between numbers and empathy lies the realm of human compassion. 

Our response to coronavirus has been an exercise in compassion, though you could hardly tell from the political rows it has descended into. One of the world’s most advanced economies chose to undermine its financial fundamentals to save the lives of the elderly and vulnerable.

The ‘rational’ course of action would have been to shield the economy by continuing as normal, knowing that very few healthy people of working age would have experienced anything more than a bad flu. 

The sacrifices made by most people have been made not for themselves but for others. The virus poses only minimal risk to them but to the people they could pass it on to, it would be a matter of life or death.

These people, or the vast majority of them, have shown what it means to be selfless, to put your life on hold for the good of strangers. This, not hackneyed slogans and fists thrust performatively in the air, is what solidarity looks like. Never again let anyone tell you this is a cold and heartless country. 

The gradual restoration of our liberties is the fulfilment of our new social contract. If we follow the rules and protect the most vulnerable, we will contain Covid-19 long enough to formulate a vaccine or devise a way of living with it that allows us to resume life outside the home.

In all this we must be bolstered by the hope that we can can triumph over these trials and the knowledge that we have come too far to give up out of impetuousness or ill-discipline. 

We are doing not only the work of the present but laying down a lesson for generations to come about the duty of the strong to the weak, the young to the old, the healthy to the afflicted.

There is plenty to criticise us for, from our mistreatment of the planet to the poverty and injustice we tolerate, but this virus has brought out the best in most of us. Every generation puts the one that went before in the dock and, when our turn comes, our response to Covid-19 will form a substantial part of the case for the defence. 

In tasting freedom we should not allow ourselves to forget our responsibilities. Coronavirus is still out there and there are still people who must be protected from it. The harder we strive to keep them safe, the sooner we can re-emerge from this pandemic and rebuild a better, safer world. 

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol]

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