Western Isles and CV-19

Today’s The Guardian featured as part of its regular coverage on Covid-19 a piece on how the Western Isles (Eileanan Siar) were ‘Perfectly primed to tackle coronavirus’.

The facts are fairly clear and indisputable – that there have only been six cases thus far and no new ones for the last 13 days; and that a recent death was, despite the initial suspicion, not actually due to the virus. Of course, in the absence of regular, systematic testing, this is only as far as we know and we don’t know how many cases have gone undetected or, indeed, which of our citizens may now have valuable antibodies. Nevertheless, the level of the lockdown – the airports are shut except for emergencies and CalMac is only bringing in essential (local) travellers and food: perhaps the one case when I might agree with the free movement of goods but not people – is clearly doing its job of keeping the virus out. So far.

The problem with the piece is the somewhat snide opening reference to islanders being experts at survival as a result of isolation, at somehow being able to greet shutdown with a stoic, habituated resilience. Yes, we don’t have to ride the tube to get to work and neither do we live in overcrowded environments where unknown other people’s hygiene represents a cause for concern and which accounts for the high incidence of cases in large urban areas.

On the other hand, it is a little galling to see the transport issues which we regularly experience now being heralded as some sort of virtue.

To see these islands as isolated is to adopt the same outside-in perspective that historian David Gange criticised in his work last year on the Frayed Atlantic Edge – this is a dislocated perspective in which the lives of people living here can freely be pushed to the margins of concern, dismissed, trivialised and otherwise patronised in ways that will be all too familiar to many of us. It is in such a context that ‘trials’ of easing the lockdown first in these islands is a word that many fellow residents will – rightly – see as one that is loaded, and not only with carelessness. Seeing the virtues of isolation as a result of transportation difficulties is exactly the sort of luxury, outside-in perspective that Gange described so accurately. And if people cannot get in, neither can we get out.

In spite of this, the reason that residents have co-operated so readily in the lockdown is, of course, the age profile, coupled with the extensive family support networks that are characteristic of many islanders’ lives: hearth and home, and family. The age profile of the Western Isles is sharply higher than that of the rest of Scotland – according to the 2011 census, nearly 30% of citizens here are aged 60 or over, compared to 22% across Scotland; while the median age is 47 for women and 44 for men, compared to 42 and 40 respectively elsewhere across the country. As the St. Andrews research has predicted, were the virus to arrive here and gain a foothold, it would take a terrible toll on the existing population. Not only that, but there is also the fragility of our future: when the Western Isles Council – the Comhairle – is already planning for a population loss of 14% by 2041, compared to a growth of 5.3% across Scotland as a whole, taking us down to 23,000 people over the next twenty years, any loss of population ahead of time jeopardises both essential stability and indeed the sustainability of human life on these islands. The dangers presented by the virus present – in actual reality – a case of our survival.

The note in the current edition of Am Pàipear, the newspaper for Uist and Benbecula, hits exactly the right note in speaking to the continued resilience of islanders – but to warn, at the same time, that we will only beat this by working as a team. Am Pàipear doesn’t really have an online presence but you can get a sense of the Editor’s expression of the nightmare, which we share with everyone else, via the paper’s Twitter feed. There might be few known cases here – and none known in Uist – but, just like anywhere else, restaurants and cafes are shut, centres are closed, summer festivals are cancelled, jobs are threatened and we are all wary of our neighbours. The virus affects our day-to-day activities just as much as if we were living in the centre of Glasgow, or of London.

Islanders might well be familiar with isolation as a result of the iniquities of parts of our existence – weather and ferry cancellations among them – but that doesn’t mean that it comes any easier to us, or does not already bring its own troubles to fragile personalities in terms of the full range of tough social problems, including addictions and abuse which are present here, too. Neither does it mean that we have any inbuilt advantages in dealing with isolation, and neither do we have any particular lessons to offer anyone else in overcoming it. We might be lucky here, so far, in having little direct experience of Covid-19 but we are affected by the lockdown just as much as anyone else.

4 thoughts on “Western Isles and CV-19

    1. That’s a good find, Tracy. Local economies are going to be under significant pressure to ease the lockdown where they are dependent on tourist income or second homers. Where people with a lot to lose also have a bit of influence, we are going to see a lot more of this sort of thing, no doubt.

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