Robin McAlpine: D=S-M: The formula that could save us from Covid despair

“Politicians are not leading you to that hope-infused future, so you’re going to have to lead them. It is your best protection against despair. It also happens to be our best hope for our shared future.”

D=S-M. It is a simple formula that has the potential to save us from despair at the prospect of a Covid-restricted life stretching out in front of us indefinitely. And we need to fight our despair – it is paralysing, more dangerous than anger and a gateway to hatred. It is a threat as real as Covid.

So what is this formula? It is a way to turn our despair into something else – if only we could get the right leadership. It was conceived by renowned Austrian psychologist Viktor Frankl who, as a Holocaust survivor, knew despair we will never know.

D is despair, S is suffering and M is meaning. Put simply, despair is to suffer but to find no meaning in that suffering, no purpose, suffering which is not for something or against something. Struggling to provide a life for your family or suffering repression in a fight to overcome a great injustice hurt deeply, but they mean something.

Despair is suffering with no good story to tell yourself and there is a very real risk that, for many this is where they are reaching in our Covid odyssey. No end in sight, no sense that the sacrifice we are making is unequivocally ‘for’ something, no feeling of ‘we’ll look back on it and remember the good’.

But we can fix this, if only we would do two things. First, we need to get our act together to reduce the suffering. Our levels of suffering in Scotland are our own choosing – other countries are not suffering like we are because they’ve been much, much better at handling the crisis.

Then, we need this whole thing to mean something. It has to be our awakening from an era we needed to leave behind anyway. It can point to a future we need, a future we want.

But first, reduce suffering. As someone who doesn’t do social media, I have observed with bemusement as your Facebook feeds have mutually reinforced your opinions that the Scottish Government has done a decent job. I’ve watched the Scottish media back off its criticisms, seemingly afraid to run against the grain of opinion. Social media really is a danger to us all.

Out here in reality, the statistics are damning and even a cursory glance at the timeline of events would put you straight quite quickly. Scotland is in lock-step with the UK in being one of the countries to be handling Covid least well.

Day after day, the UK media is tearing strips off the Tory Government for the same things that are happening up here without comment. Both treated Covid as a hospital management problem, rather than an all-consuming crisis of public health, social wellbeing and economic security. Both were lax and shoddy on implementing control mechanisms like a proper testing system.

From Nikegate to not attending Sage and Cobra meetings to the care homes tragedy to poor home learning provision to the exams fiasco, to the short-lived ‘elimination strategy’ to the universities debacle, with the lack of any proper scientific advice before May and the constant discovery that things we were told quickly turned out not to be true (and much, much more), it has been bad.

Yet Scotland is perfectly capable of getting the virus under control and making life liveable. Eradication is achievable; we only need to do two things. First, we need to identify outbreaks earlier (via randomised testing) and lock them down faster but much, much more locally (via a ‘traffic light’ system), so they impact on many fewer people.

If we do that systematically and consistently, we can suppress the virus right down with the minimum suffering. Then, we need to control new contagions coming in.

Policy is created by people who fly a lot, so a blind eye was turned to airports, with a ‘did you pack your virus yourself?’ strategy implemented (globalisation is an ideology that tolerates many, many human sacrifices). Despite what you might have heard, this too was a choice.

We could have sited testing and virus control stations outside airports and at the English border. Anyone who was clear would be very welcome; anyone infected would have been directed to quarantine hotels or, at the border, asked to return home and self-isolate. No-one’s permission was required – we could have been in New Zealand’s situation just now. We still can.

But even this package of measures would not have reduced our Covid suffering to zero, so as well as sharply reducing our suffering, we need it to mean something.

It’s not like 2019 was the peak of human civilisation, a destination we should long to get back to. The world is on fire because of climate change, inequality gets worse and worse, it is driving people into the arms of right-wing authoritarians and corruption is the norm in our global economy. There is much to improve on.

I beg you to fight your despair and to find hope. There is absolutely no question that we can make our society a better place than it was and to question whether that is feasible is ridiculous. Covid is a crisis but it’s not the Second World War and that generation managed to build a welfare state which transformed people’s lives even though Europe was in rubble.

It led to nearly three decades of the greatest improvements in living standards in history. It happened because a generation which had suffered greatly demanded that their suffering had to mean something. It had to be for something.

What we need desperately is leadership which has something approaching a clue of where to go next. When all we’ve been given is the report of the Advisory Group on Economic Recovery and the Programme for Government, the Scottish Government’s rhetoric about ‘Build Back Better’ seems every bit as hollow as Boris Johnson’s.

Returning soldiers were promised ‘a land fit for heroes’; we’re being offered – wait for it – a new inward investment strategy to be forged by Scottish bloody Enterprise. This isn’t an opportunity wasted, it is an opportunity being positively mocked.

We have this enormous opportunity. The biggest barrier to a Green New Deal was the lack of workforce. Now we have a workforce with no future. Put them together, train them to deliver the Green New Deal we need. These are good jobs doing valuable stuff. Common Weal has shown that it more than pays for itself.

Our democracy is a mess and far, far too centralised. Communities are powerless and frustrated. We can turn this around and bring a new era of participatory democracy to Scotland. We have amazing food resources yet eat overly-processed crap imported from foreign factories. Eating more of our own food makes us healthier, improves our lives and creates lots of jobs. Let’s do that.

Our care home system was a disgrace before Covid and the total lack of community health support was brutally exposed. This is our chance to create an era-defining National Care System (the £50 million sale of a care home group a couple of weeks ago tells us that this is definitely not what is being planned). Changing public procurement could transform Scotland’s small businesses.

All Common Weal has been trying to do all year is to create the fuel to let this hope burn brightly. The above examples are only a selection from what we put together this year. We also produced lots of work on getting the Covid suffering down to the level it should be.

We produced Ending Lockdown, Resilience Economics, Resilient Scotland, Warning Lights and much more. We are an organisation created out of hope, driven daily by hope, and widely supported because of hope. As an organisation, despair is our biggest enemy. Soon we’ll launch a very big campaign to get straight to those in despair to try to help them share our hope.

Hope is being promised that no, things will not go back, past failures will not be tolerated any more, that the suffering which is endemic for so many people in Scotland will be ended and that, truly, the new Scotland will be built in the image of the heroes of Covid – compassionate, determined and full to the brim of humanity.

It is within our grasp. Get the hell off your damned Facebook and look at what is actually happening – pick up a phone to your loved ones and tell them that you have a new-found determination to use this crisis for good.

Politicians are not leading you to that hope-infused future, so you’re going to have to lead them. It is your best protection against despair. It also happens to be our best hope for our shared future.