The Coronavirus pandemic has created global trauma: terrible loss of life, devastation to economies and destruction of jobs. In many countries lockdown has imposed extreme restrictions on our freedom – whether we are potentially infectious, or vulnerable, or neither. It has been a very blunt instrument. I am not persuaded that our UK governments’ response has been proportionate, consistent or well-targeted. The welfare of people in care homes seems to have been sacrificed on the altar of our sacred cow, the National Health Service, and while PPE equipment and testing has been scarce, care homes seemed to be accorded the lowest priority.
The education of a whole generation of children and young adults has been seriously disrupted. For disadvantaged youngsters, the consequences have been more damaging, and the attainment gap is bound to widen. Many adults have suffered real hardship with loss of income, loss of job and loss of self-respect. For a range of reasons, the virus has hit the black, asian and minority groups harder, and racial tension has been exacerbated.
Although signs are emerging of tentative progress out of lockdown, official advice still prevents us from travelling to our great outdoors. In Scotland, we are still told not to travel more than 5 miles although I don’t personally know anybody who has been infected, and Scotland has had two consecutive days without further virus-positive deaths. All I want to do is to walk somewhere isolated, alone or with my dog. This lent a hollow ring to my enthusiasm for International Trails Day on 5 June. I maintain a website devoted to Scotland’s Great Trails but unless you happen to live on or near to one you still aren’t supposed to use them.
Dealing with the virus may be akin to the trauma of personal bereavement, and there are some similar stages in our response. Various labels have been applied to the phases of grief, such as denial, anger, resignation then acceptance. I’m not sure that I have moved on from anger at the incompetence of our government’s failure to learn from the experience of countries that were afflicted before us.
Amid all the devastation, there have been some positive effects. Many who thought that videoconferencing was for other people – for the highly paid, time-poor/cash-rich – have found it important as a way of maintaining relationships, combating isolation and doing business without physical travel. With less traffic and travel, the air has become cleaner and the birdsong louder. In response to the widespread pain and loss, people have volunteered to help their neighbours. Stricken theatres and opera houses have streamed their performances for free, fitness gurus have offered daily workouts on YouTube and who in Britain was not touched and inspired by Captain Tom Moore’s success in raising nearly £33 million for NHS charities before his 100th birthday?
At Rucksack Readers, we made a small effort to get books out to people who wanted to dream about hiking Scotland’s most popular long walk, passing beside Loch Lomond (pictured above). Back in March we offered 20 free copies of our West Highland Way to anybody that emailed to say why they deserved one. The response was rapid and heart-warming: people wrote very personal stories, some extremely touching. The result was that we gave away far more than 20! How could we possibly disappoint somebody fund-raising for MND, the victim of domestic abuse who wanted to look forward to this walk with her daughter, the person who wanted it as a present to a self-isolating friend or the heart-rending story of somebody recovering from a brain tumour?
My motive for giving these books away was not virtuous. The West Highland Way was my very first long walk, and my feelings about it are deeply personal. After working on the book for nearly a year, including rewalking every inch of the Way, I had just taken delivery of printed copies and it was demoralising to see them all sitting in boxes. I also found the process of giving them away surprisingly enjoyable. It gave me a sense of purpose at a time when orders had dried up completely.
And although there are some signs that people will return to planning long walks and cycle rides, it seems that there will be more ebooks and print-on-demand books and, sadly, fewer bricks-and-mortar bookshops. I hope we can find ways to support independent booksellers because we need their calming and enlightening influence, we need their local focus and we need retailers on our high streets. This means we need to resist the rapacious power of the online behemoths. If nothing else, the pandemic has taught us to value many things that we were in danger of taking for granted.
© Jacquetta Megarry 2020