Covid’s intergenerational injustices

Sunday National, 6th June 2021.

Today is a blue letter day. While you are rolling out your copy of Seven Days on the kitchen table, I will be rolling up my sleeves at the NHS Louisa Jordan in central Glasgow for a swift Pfizer or sweet shot of Moderna.

The internet tells me I’m on the cusp of being classed as a “geriatric millennial” – a phrase I have a sneaking fondness for – but if NHS Scotland have already worked through over half of the children of the 1980s, the children of the 1990s kids can’t be far too behind. It feels like progress. As a youngish, fittish, healthyish person lucky enough to be in stable employment, with somewhere comfortable to stay over the last year – my pandemic has been characterised more by boredom than the anxiety and fear I know others have experienced.

There have been times when I’ve felt the absence of other people, certainly, and the certain sense of being too much on my own – but I also know a crowded house has had its own challenges for folk locked-in with in-laws, juggling life, work, and a field promotion to the role of teacher, dinnerlady and household janitor.

A syringe seems like a curious symbol of hope, but after a long pandemic trapped in what has sometimes felt like forever lockdown – it feels like a wee shot of freedom. The anticipation of joining the 60% of Scots who have at least one shot of one of the vaccines makes me feel curiously emotional.

It is also a good time to recognise we’re now entering a new and slightly disorientating phase of the pandemic, and one which is an essentially different political sell for the First Minister when compared to the austere logic of this long winter and spring.

Cast your mind back over the last eighteen months, and Covid infections accelerating in your area was usually a sound cue to stock up for a swift circuit-breaking 8 months in the house. But Covid cases are accelerating now. As of the 4th of June, Scotland put on just under 1,000 new cases. Case numbers across Scotland are now rising on an exponential trajectory. That these figures coincide with the loosening of restrictions in some of Scotland’s most populous and Covid-heavy local authority areas reflects a fundamental change of policy which many Scots are likely to find jarring, just as others enjoy a bit more freedom.

Some 40% of the Scottish population have now been double-jagged. Just under a quarter of folk have had their first dose. Until today, I’m in the other younger quarter of the population who have been waiting patiently as the NHS worked down the generations. The social balance is made up of the 17% of folk under 16, who are also largely unvaccinated. It is amongst these younger age groups that cases are currently rising – and in some areas, rising fast.

We now seem to be betting the house on the vaccine policy to break the connection between cases, hospitalisations and deaths. As cases have risen this week, hospital admissions have snuck up by 6 to 116, with just 8 people currently in intensive care with Covid-related issues. If this is a stable situation, the anxieties about rising case loads which have been stoked for months will suddenly become less germane, but this may be a hard sell for the governments with parts of the population who have taken the official caution powerfully to heart.

There’s probably another social dynamic in play here too. In his eye-popped evidence to the House of Commons committee last week, Dominic Cummings told MPs that Downing Street’s pandemic planning back in 2020 were based on Orientalist assumptions. Lockdowns, our senior mandarins figured, might be effective in socially-disciplined and compliant societies like Singapore, but UK planners reckoned that the ruggedly independent Anglo-Saxons, jealous defenders of their civil liberties, would chafe at government diktats, with widespread non-compliance.

It is yet another a small reminder that we are governed by people with apparently minimal insight into the social realities and social values of the country they govern – people who project their own lack of solidarity onto the community, and legislate accordingly.

While Whitehall’s social psychologists threw a clanger back in the spring of 2020, I do wonder how sustainable the kind of widespread restrictions we have seen across Scotland through the winter and the spring now are.

While the success of the vaccine rollout clearly changes the public health calculus, decision-makers across the UK are also faced with perceptible lockdown fatigue and economic pressures which they will increasingly find themselves obliged to accommodate themselves to.

We can’t ignore the generational issue here either. Case numbers are rising in younger people in this country – or to put it another way, people who have not been invited for vaccination as older cohorts were understandably prioritised. Commentators and politicians would do well to remember this fact before taking yet another opportunity to give youngsters an undeserved dressing down.

“Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives.” While these slogans proved an effective mobiliser for community sentiment and behavioural change, this kind of rhetoric had the unfortunate side-effect  of moralising the infection, with a positive Covid test sometimes being depicted as evidence of personal irresponsibility, carelessness, disreputable friends, or cocking a snook at the regulations –rather than reflecting the fact that an exposed population, at work, interacting with the public day and daily, forced to travel to work on public transport, are inevitably going to find themselves far more exposed to heightened risks of coming into close contact with someone shedding antibodies, however few illicit house parties they attend or strangers they embrace. 

Having been content to send the kids out onto the front line for peanuts, for months, there is something remarkably distasteful – and remarkably predictable – about listening to folk in big houses, with big gardens and access to at least one family car doling out lectures about the fecklessness of youth.

One of the ironies about the way we so often talk about young people is that both their detractors and many of their advocates seem to have a one-eyed focus on their vulnerability. For the grogblossomed Telegraph or Daily Mail hack, they are snowflakes and melts who would benefit from the acquisition of a shrapnel injury in some kind of small war, just like they didn’t do when they didn’t die for their country not fighting at the Somme.

As a university teacher, you see it all – the challenges and hardships students experience, the difficult personal circumstances people work through – but you also see the resilience, the perseverance and responsibility so many younger people have shown and continue to show. There’s a power of difference between being honest about our vulnerabilities, and giving the mistaken impression that vulnerabilities are all we’ve got going.

Anyone under thirty in this country has experienced enough evidence to last a lifetime that their fate is not their own, and that their personal and professional lives are subject to forces beyond their control. It isn’t as if this generation has had its troubles to seek. Pandemics, financial crashes, Brexit contracting their horizons, well-founded social expectations of lower standards of living than their parents, intense competition for decent paying work, routine casualisation and precariousness in the work they can find, dealing with mediocre managers who have a dim and defensive awareness that they wouldn’t get an interview today for the posts they’re currently haunting, getting used to pouring hundreds of pounds year after year into paying off someone else’s mortgage with no prospect of saving for a deposit of your own without that pay rise which you know isn’t coming any time soon.  

None of us is ever self-made. This should be one powerful lesson of the last year and a half. Nobody conceives and develops a vaccine alone. Nobody rolls it out alone. We are subject to one another, and our individual freedom is inevitably conditioned by other people, and their choices and endeavours, younger or older, healthier or more fragile. Folk enjoying a lifetime of economic benefits, given priority access to the protection of vaccines, would do well to remember that before unloading on the generations who have made and continue to make quiet sacrifices for all of us, for the most part, without complaint.

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