Robin McAlpine: Covid is a tragedy – but, in our people, it has also been a triumph

“This was a tragedy. In government, this was a disaster. But in communities, in small businesses, in the caring professions and in our hearts and souls – this has been a triumph.”

Common Weal Versus the Virus: The virus is exposing the reality of the weaknesses in our economy, society and democracy. Over the past few months, Common Weal Director Robin McAlpine has been writing a series of columns arguing that Common Weal policy is the best way to survive this virus and rebuild when its over. Today – ending positively

WHEN the virus struck we never doubted what our role was at Common Weal – to work hard. We started the Resilient Scotland project (along with Resilience Economics) to offer hope and guidance on recovery.

We got ready to respond to what we thought we needed to – to raise the alarm about the lack of a control strategy and to explain how it could be done, to shine a light on the horrors that had taken place in our care homes. In fact since lockdown we’ve published seven major reports, three big summary reports and three consultation responses.

And with Source, we’ve provided what I really do think is the best analysis you’ll find of what has happened in Scotland in the last four months. I committed immediately to a series of columns looking at all the issues I thought mattered, to offer scrutiny, but mostly to give hope.

They end today, as I finish for two weeks’ off. The scrutiny has given me no pleasure, because the picture has been so damned awful. But I refuse to go out on a negative note because, overall, that is not how I feel. Overall, from what I can see, I think that we have become better people.

Above us we have not seen the best of us. Setting aside government, I feel that our opinion leaders have fallen short – not so much the journalists as the people they report on.

I was disappointed not to see many more organisations join our call for a proper testing system when it was really important (we couldn’t even get a newspaper or media outlet to cover the publication of the paper). In fact, I think the public health commentary in Scotland (with some honourable exceptions) has lagged a long, long way from that at a UK level.

Much of this is because of the media – but before you dive straight into media-bashing, you really need to have a picture of the catastrophe which has befallen the media. Look at the websites of our best-known Scottish newspapers and count the bylines. There are days when you’re lucky if there are four professional journalists producing content.

Newspapers don’t really report on their own turmoil, but many journalists have been furloughed – and we were woefully short of them to begin with. I still don’t think the media has been good at asking the important questions, but newspapers have been devastated.

And again, what have they had to report? I was constantly amazed at the voices from the free market side of Scotlands’ economic debate (or the entirety of Scotland’s economic debate, as it might more accurately be called): all the early talk was of being back on track by Christmas.

To illustrate this, I had a conversation which could be summarised like this; ‘yes, sure all the restaurants and bars and half the shops will not reopen – but at least commercial property prices will hold up’. To this day, I’m not sure they’re ready to accept what has happened.

Which is where we reach the Advisory Group on Economic Recovery. Has this report been published three or four years ago under normal circumstances, I’d have called it quite refreshing and a bit different. But today? It’s prepping for a nuclear war by stockpiling catapults (or, with more humour, this).

In these columns I’ve been trying to say yes, this is hard, yes this will be bad – but there is a real chance here. A Scotland of production, of usefulness, of real green reindustrialisation, of high wage and good public service, of innovative change and radical reform. A future of sharing and caring, making, growing, building – and serving. A future not built for the parasites but for the people.

The top end of our society largely failed us, but the top end of our society isn’t the whole story (and for the first time in such a long, long while, it wasn’t about celebrities or ‘social media influencers’). When things are fine, they take our money and ask us to thank them. But when things are hard, they lock themselves away and wait for us to deliver their shopping and to care for them if they fall ill.

So we learned. There is every evidence that it changed us. Suddenly, simple things mean more – connection, people, care, love, time, space. And I think most of us learned things about ourselves (I didn’t miss the pub as much as I thought I would, but missed our Gala Day much more).

So what have I learned from others? I don’t hero worship – it isn’t really healthy – but I still have heroes. Here are some new ones – and what I learned from them.

The support group in Biggar

I can repeat enough times how amazed I have been at how ordinary people stepped up in the place I live. Other than the bin lorry, I’ve not seen the council – but a bunch of local people (mostly women) stepped in, formed a group, got a phone, printed leaflets with the number, put it through every door and told everyone they weren’t alone; that if they needed medicine or food or support, they could phone. My partner was one of them. She thinks her main contribution wasn’t really dropping off medicine to older people, but talking to them for a while when she did. Community will save us every time. I will be furious if Scotland doesn’t get proper local democracy after this.

Carol Jamabo

It is ludicrous how, no matter how clever we are, we don’t understand things properly in the abstract. I clearly didn’t know Carol Jamabo (the first care worker to die of the virus) and I obviously knew care workers would die. Then I learned of her death and I saw her photo and I had to sit down and compose myself again. She wasn’t even NHS staff, properly trained for this. She would have had no idea of any risk when she chose her career. And yet she turned up, and she cared, and she died because of it. In her, I find everything I need to believe it’s all worthwhile – that there is something worth fighting for.

My friend and his son

I have a friend. Many years ago he started a new relationship and his partner has a son he now considers his. Their son has serious developmental difficulties, but they’re a working-class family and both of them work, are always busy. They were both furloughed early. In that early sun, the family sat together in their garden. They live in a rural area so they could safely go for long walks along the Clyde. Six weeks later their son, with time deep inside a family that had time for him, had made more progress than in the previous two years. What kind of a society doesn’t give parents time to be what their son needs? Let’s become a society that does.

The Orchard

Back in Biggar again. We try to shop locally from small independent shops. We already regularly used our little greengrocers/fishmonger/deli The Orchard. They’re great. Then the virus hit and they were simply amazing. They worked so, so hard – seven days a week. They created a system to make sure everyone could get anything they needed. We order 36 hours in advance and they sort everything. Anything left over goes into charity boxes – for £5 you get a box with a totally random selection of fruit and veg and the money went to good causes.

With the amazing people at Mossgill knocking themselves out to make sure we got our wonderful milk-in-a-glass-bottle, our local Broughton Brewery delivering cases of its great beer, our local butcher bending over backwards and the lovely people at our local Co-op doing the rest, we were absolutely spoiled throughout. These small local businesses stepped up and transformed themselves into something else – a public service, an anchor that kept our community together and well. You want to know why Common Weal believes they and not the damned corporations are the key to our recovery? That’s why. Thanks so much guys – we really owe you.

Nick Kempe

On a Thursday in April, a man I didn’t know emailed me a long essay. He told me he had worked his life in the care sector and had tried and tried to make the system better. He told me he retired a couple of years ago, dejected. He thought he’d failed, that was the end of it. He was watching what was happening in the care homes with pain and anger.

I told him he had to rewrite his essay as a policy paper. He worked long, long hours over the weekend. When I spoke to him on Monday he was exhausted. But he did it, he turned his essay into The Predictable Crisis, the report we published. I read it. I cried, I raged, I was affected like nothing I’d ever worked on before. Nick is so calm, reasonable, measured – but he is passionate and angry and determined. I thanked him profusely, and remarkably he instead thanked me. He believed, just possibly, now he could do in retirement what he couldn’t do in his career – bring change.

He has been writing a series on Source and if this is an issue that matters to you and you’ve not read these, you have to. They are too important. Nick represents the sheer courage that I see over and over in the people who can’t walk by. Nevertheless, you’re wrong Nick; it is still me who needs to thank you.

The people I’ve met who tell me they’ve changed

Common Weal can barely keep up with the volume of people who’ve come forward and want to help, to do something. I met a lot of new people. I don’t think anyone didn’t tell me they’d changed.

There was the student who had (finally, finally) borrowed a bike, and then loved it, and then bought one. There is the senior policy professional who has lost two stone and is fitter than he has ever been. There’s another policy contributor who has decided finally to learn a language. I don’t know how many people I spoke to who learned to cook. There is the student project I was involved in which got disrupted at the end, the leader of the project who is back at home and volunteering for her local NHS. And her father who had spent a life in business and asked the family at the table, deep with emotion, what had it amounted to when his daughter was doing this thing.

Fuck the media and its ‘oh look, aren’t people total shits because they all went to the beach’. No, they’re not shits, they’re amazing – and if they had just a damned fighting chance in life, they’d be even more amazing.

Jacinda Ardern

There is a risk you think I hate leadership. I most certainly don’t – everyone above is a leader. But nor do I disrespect politicians. They just have to earn respect. It is perfectly possible. Ideally what you have to do is step up not into the limelight but into your responsibility. You have to say not ‘look at me’ but ‘this is on me’. Not how do I look but how do I fix this? How do I protect those I have to protect? Without second-guessing the media response, without fear, to live up to what the people you are responsible for need from you. And to do it all with true humanity, humility and authority? That please. Can I have that please.

The ones we didn’t clap for

We clapped for the NHS. We were right to. But we didn’t clap for the taxi drivers, the delivery drivers, the supermarket staff, the detainees – sorry, staff – at Amazon depots, and everyone else who went out and made life possible for the rest of us. They’ve been praised, sure. They’ve not been praised enough.

The team

The most important read every day (no exception) is Ben Wray’s Source Direct. Incisive, informed, aware, clear, important – he gave the Scottish media journalism lessons. Sean Bell hadn’t long started as Source editor and he has made it essential, aided by the excellent work of Source journalists David Jamieson and Becca Toop.

With calm, assured authority, Craig Dalzell takes the data and makes it mean something; When the media was nowhere, Craig again and again showed how to take a proper measure of where we are and where we need to be. No-one else painted the picture of what had actually happened like Craig did. And Jonathan Shafi, Becki Menzies and Sorcha Meridith (along with a big team of volunteers) have built the most amazing campaign. It has pulled in thousands and thousands of people. I know how much it mattered because I know how many people have emailed me to say that we offered them hope when they felt despair.

They’ve worked so hard – close to burnout in some cases (Craig was editing essential work when his lungs were not yet fully recovered from a nasty case of Covid). I don’t have the words to express my thanks.

Ramsay McFarlane

Because seriously, if you don’t know what else to do, if you can’t think of another contribution, dig up your back garden, create a bike track for the local kids and build a giant light-up rainbow to let them know they are (carefully) welcome.

I have forgotten who exactly all the chattering classes were – those who, a few short weeks ago, thought they really, really mattered. The ‘influential media commentator’ who is influential only with other media commentators. The economic guru who didn’t know what to say once ‘give us what we want’ wasn’t enough any more. The political hack who told us on day one that the independence movement was over. The self-important civil servant who can’t quite place their hands on the advice on how to prevent the population from dying. Superfluous or not up to it barely covers the nature of their existence in recent months.

But people, ready to sacrifice without complaint, ready to do our bit, ready to cheer and help and make the best of it? All those who found time and space to think again about themselves, their life, the world? Every single person who said, just once, I wish I’d understood how important low-paid workers were before this? Each person who said ‘OK, it has to be different now’?

That right there is the revolution, if it is allowed to live and not now be extinguished by the very high heid yins who proved such a pointless waste of space when a real crisis appeared. Just briefly, we were held back from the shopping mall and given a real look at our own humanity. Never let that go.

This was a tragedy. In government, this was a disaster. But in communities, in small businesses, in the caring professions and in our hearts and souls – this has been a triumph. Be proud of your country, a place made from people and care and patience and love. Let this place now always be for them.