John Cumming: There is glimmer of light for all of us at the end of this dark tunnel.

We are certainly living in strange times. The circumstances which we presently find ourselves in are unlike any other experienced by most people alive today. Over the past few weeks our world, our communities and our very way of life have changed beyond any recognition. It feels like only moments ago that we were celebrating the start of the New Year with friends, family and loved ones. At that moment our hearts and minds were overwhelmed with hope, ambition and optimism for the coming year. It’s easy to feel as if that has been totally diminished. In a time of hardship, I always try to focus on any glimmer of hope that can be found. In terms of the current situation, this virus has highlighted a variety of issues and opportunities which received very little attention previously. Given this new perspective, it is important to question what can be learned from this experience and what good can come from it.


It would be wrong for me to complain, too much, about my own personal situation. In comparison to many others my experience over the last few weeks has been largely stable and any challenges which I have faced are no match to the obstacles faced by so many. In light of that, it’s important to think about those who will be pushed especially hard over the coming months and how we can support them. This is a time for cooperation and solidarity, not selfishness. It would be easy to label this disease as ‘indiscriminate’ and paint an evocative picture of a common struggle which transcends any form of socio-economic division. The reality is, this depiction is false. Instead of uniting the people of this country and others across the world, COVID-19 has brought into sharp focus the inequalities which have long existed but received little attention.


Over the past few weeks, the survival of our society has been placed on the shoulders of our frontline workers in the NHS, the police force, armed services, retail, key local services and other crucial sectors. This is not a new phenomenon. These workers have always been the foundations of modern society. It’s only now that the eyes of the media and the focus of the public have been drawn towards the work that they do, that we have truly come to appreciate them. One very key change that we need to see as an outcome of this pandemic is a sea-change in the way we treat these ‘key workers’. These workers did not become ‘key’ as a result of this pandemic. They have always been absolutely crucial. Therefore their status cannot be reduced once we come out of the other side of this crisis. The question then arises of how can we sustain that position for these workers who are so central to a functioning society? That is a question which government, employers and ourselves as consumers need to give serious thought to.


Aside for the public health implications, the impact of the pandemic on our economy has been truly profound. Coronavirus has brought about a reshaping of the relationship between business, consumers, government and employees. Although there have been significant negative implications for individuals and business, this temporary change to how our economy functions has highlighted opportunities for long-term improvement.


The increased need to ‘work from home’ has brought into question the barriers to employment that were assumed to exist for so many. This is especially relevant for those with reduced mobility or any other condition which would restrict their ability to, for example, commute to an office for work. This crisis has highlighted the fact that many jobs do not require workers to travel into work, an aspect of employment which discourages or even prevents many individuals from taking up these roles. From a policy perspective, this opens up a whole realm of possibilities in terms of how we can learn from this experience and utilise the outstanding technology at our disposal. This could allow us to increase access to employment by tearing down the barriers which currently exist for those who would like to work but are currently prevented from doing so. We must however be clear that this does not create an opportunity to exploit this technology and force people into employment. Any policy developments in this area need to be done in consultation with individuals to identify their needs, their individual ambitions and the very specific obstacles which currently exist.


During the Coronavirus pandemic, it has been incredibly reassuring to see an increased trust in, and recognition, of the role of experts. Politics exists in every aspect of life and this is also the case for the response to COVID-19. While there has been a degree of political discourse, this has been mostly shaped by scientific evidence and the advice of experts with a few notable exceptions. This is a welcome change from the political discourse which we have witnessed over the past few years. Furthermore, although there has been a concerning presence of inaccurate and frankly misleading information making its way around our social media feeds, this has been met with an increased awareness of the dangers of misinformation and the damage it can inflict. This pandemic may be the wake up call we needed to recognise the real threat of misinformation to our democracy and our security. There has been some discussion in the past few weeks about the concept of ‘cyber hygiene’. We can only hope that there will be a positive change in behaviour as a result of COVID-19 but this must extend beyond hand washing. As a society we need to pay attention to the quality of information that we are consuming and how this shapes discussion and decision-making.


The coming years will undoubtedly be politically tumultuous. Aside from the inevitable debate around economic recovery after COVID-19, we are still facing the ever present issues of Britain’s place in the European and of course, Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom. Given the extent to which misinformation and untruths have plagued our politics for so long we can only hope, perhaps optimistically, that an evidence based approach to political debate will arise as a result of this crisis and our awareness of the danger of misinformation from all sources will increase significantly.


Finally, one especially exciting development of this crisis is the strengthening and flourishing of community spirit across Scotland and across the world. The threat of Coronavirus has of course been met with a great deal of fear and anxiety which is more than understandable. But for every ounce of fear, we have seen a tonne of solidarity and kindness. This should be of little surprise. Scotland has always had a reputation for kindness and our ability to care. During this crisis, we have seen a glimpse of the potential of our community spirit, the extent of which is unimaginable. A large focus of the years ahead will be recovery and a process of reshaping and reform. Our communities have a very important role to play in that. It is through care and consideration for our neighbours, for the vulnerable, and for small local businesses that we will begin to heal and grow.


Scotland’s infinite community spirit is not confined to small geographical areas. It connects every part of our nation and extends far beyond. This pandemic and the consequent global recovery is an international issue and Scotland has a role to play in that.


As humans, we often learn as a result of hardship. Some of the darkest moments in our history have brought about truly great actions of progress. I believe the same will happen as a result of Coronavirus. In years to come, my generation will continue to talk about this undeniably strange and often devastating moment in our lives. I hope with the greatest sincerity that in the same breath we will be able to tell a story about how we moved forward with lessons learned and stronger as a society. The potential developments which I have highlighted are merely food for thought and require much more extensive consideration. In the short term, we face some huge challenges but in the long run, we have an opportunity to reform, grow and progress to a stronger and more caring chapter in our history. That is glimmer of light for all of us at the end of this dark tunnel.


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