Euan McColm: Whatever gets you through the night isn’t always right

It’s half past three in the morning and I’m awake, again. I creep out of our bedroom and settle on the sofa. By the time my fiancée gets up for work, I’ve watched three episodes of Countdown and run down my phone battery surfing the internet.

Monday, 28th September 2020, 12:09 pm
Updated Monday, 28th September 2020, 2:41 pm
A slogan on a billboard in Glasgow sums up the gravity of the situation we face. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA
A slogan on a billboard in Glasgow sums up the gravity of the situation we face. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA

It’s weeks since I had a decent night’s sleep and things are getting worse. I’m frequently exhausted, I’m increasingly irritable, and I’m permanently anxious. I wonder if, perhaps, I’ve already got it and it’s currently incubating, preparing to take me out. I feel a twinge, a knot in my stomach, and I imagine the virus pulsing through my body, stopping to wreak damage on this major organ or that. I worry that, if I do fall asleep, I’ll wake with full-blown symptoms. Or that I won’t wake at all.

During the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, I was blasé. It was something abstract, something for other people to worry about. But as lockdown dragged on, so my anxiety developed. The rising death toll suggested to me that here was something to fear and my stupid brain decided to jump right into that particular pool. By the time Boris Johnson – a man of my generation – was in intensive care, I was floundering.

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A holiday – an isolated break on a boat with friends (all of us tested) – brought some respite, but since returning home, six weeks ago, all of those bleak feelings have come roaring back.

The NHS website – to which I am now a frequent visitor – tells me these feelings are normal and that they will pass. I accept this. It doesn’t help.

What also doesn’t help is the growing movement of those who would have us believe that the pandemic is a hoax. Last week, leaflets pushing conspiracies about coronavirus were delivered to homes across Dunfermline. Calling on people to reject the advice of medical experts, the conspiracist behind this document insisted that masks were – in fact – dangerous and that Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates had a financial interest in promoting “the coronavirus horror story”.

There was something rather quaint about this leafleting campaign. After all, wild theories about this virus are all over the internet. The sewer of Twitter runs with fantastical claims about a global plot to control the masses. “They” want us to think coronavirus is real because “they” want to keep us docile or “they” want to cash in with expensive vaccines for an illness that doesn’t really exist.

And then there are those who believe the virus is real but that it has been created to that “they” can kill off millions of people. What benefit “they” might gain from this is not entirely clear but the conspiracist requires a bogeyman and logic be damned.

The charitable of nature tell us to understand that many of those who buy into these wild theories do so because they want to make sense of something which scares them. It’s much easier, goes this line of thinking, for people to believe that coronavirus is a hoax than to accept that it is real and devastating.

I understand the argument. It doesn’t soothe my anger. It doesn’t allay my anxiety. It makes me think dark thoughts. It makes me wish that those holding protests against masks would be struck down with the virus; that’d f***ing show them. And then I feel disgusted at myself for this cruelty. And so my anxiety grows.

For every person who does become infected with the virus, countless more will suffer the damage to their health caused by stress.

Last week Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a new scheme of wage subsidies to replace the furlough scheme which has, until now, protected hundreds of thousands of jobs.

This will, without question, ensure that many are spared the devastation of unemployment but it doesn’t remove the nagging uncertainty for very many more who continue to fear that the virus will put an end to their careers.

Stress is coronavirus’s shapeshifting henchman. Even if the virus misses a target, stress is there to cause depression, to increase the risk of heart attacks and diabetes, to raise the blood pressure and lower the sex drive.

Politicians tell us that we will get through this together, that if we follow the guidelines, minimising risk to ourselves and others, we will have brighter days ahead; and, of course, I accept this is true. I am more than a little seduced by the idea of a people united to defeat this threat.

This idea of unity was underlined by a joint statement issued by the UK government and the devolved administrations on Friday morning. It marked a much-needed break from the grubby politicking that has been practised by so many elected members over recent months.

Yes, where ministers – whether they serve at Westminster, Holyrood, Stormont or the Senedd – fail, then it is the duty of their opponents to go in hard. But sometimes – far too often – those politicians attacking others have ulterior motives. They seek to exploit our fears, to turn this or that administration’s handling of the coronavirus into a reason to change one’s allegiances.

There might be something in these particular lines of attack if it were possible to discern significant differences in the approaches taken by ministers across the United Kingdom. It is not, however, possible to do this. Where one government has failed, so have others. Likewise, successes are shared.

Politicians playing games with this issue do nothing but add to our collective anxiety and they should damned well catch a grip of themselves because we see them. They are not so smart as they think they are.

I hope you’re finding a course through these difficult days and that you can maintain some optimism. But if you’re finding it difficult, if you’re waking up at half past three in the morning, concerned about loved ones, about your job, about your health, then please remember you are not alone. I worry about all of these things and there’s nothing special about me.

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