What Nicola Sturgeon can learn from Tracey Emin's brave interview - Susan Dalgety

Artist Tracey Emin gave a searingly honest interview earlier this week. Speaking from her bed in East London, she told Decca Aitkenhead of The Times about her cancer surgery in July. As the rest of us were absorbed by the virus, Emin had large parts of her body removed in a herculean effort to save her life.

Tracey Emin gave a frank interview about her cancer battle this week
Tracey Emin gave a frank interview about her cancer battle this week

A team of 12 surgeons operated on her for six and a half hours, removing her bladder, uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries, lymph nodes, part of her colon and her urethra. And in what must have been a devastating blow to a woman whose artistic life has been an exploration of her femaleness, they removed part of her vagina. “I haven’t got a hole,” she said with characteristic bluntness.

As she recovers in her East London home, she contemplates her future, looking forward to a new exhibition of her paintings alongside some of Edward Munch’s work. And poignantly she tells Aitkenhead that she would like to get “past Christmas”.

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The coronavirus has so dominated our lives that we are in danger of forgetting that life, and death, goes on beyond the pandemic. I know of two people, in the prime of their lives and with young families, who are currently in hospital being treated for advanced cancer. Their courage in coping with their illness, which is far more devasting than most cases of Covid, astounds me.

I would like to think I could approach a terrifying diagnosis with the same equanimity as my friends and Tracey Emin, but I know I would be more likely to crawl in to bed, like a wounded old cat. I would be more afraid of the treatment than the disease, preferring, I think, a quick death to a prolonged one, punctuated by surgery and chemotherapy.

But thousands of people across Scotland have been denied even that choice because of the impact of Covid on our NHS. A report published by MacMillan Cancer Support yesterday makes for terrifying reading. The charity estimates that 2,250 people who should have started cancer treatment between April and September did not, and that there are 4,300 people in Scotland who are living with a cancer that has not yet been diagnosed. The inference being that it may well be too late when they eventually see a consultant.

The impact on our economy, and people’s livelihoods, is also devastating. My daughter-in-law, a mobile hairdresser, has just been told by the First Minister to stop working, with no apparent safety net to compensate for her loss of income.

Her experience is replicated across the hospitality sector with people and businesses thrown on the scrapheap without, it seems, a scintilla of sympathy. There are thousands of people across Scotland facing Christmas without a salary, sacrificed for the greater good by people whose income has not been affected by the virus, nor is likely to be.

I understand the argument that our economic wellbeing depends on good public health and agree that we cannot countenance our hospital corridors being filled with Covid patients dying on trolleys as they were in New York and Italy.

But there is a limit to our endurance, both as individuals and as a society. To survive a catastrophe, whether it is a devastating cancer diagnosis such as Tracey Emin’s, or a pandemic, we need hope…and a plan.

Emin’s surgeon did not mince their words when they explained to her what had to be done to save her life. Their blunt honesty gave her confidence, and we could all do with a huge injection of confidence - and hope - right now.

Nicola Sturgeon has made a virtue out of her daily press briefings where she drips out only as much information as she thinks we need to know and grimaces her way through even the most benign questions from journalists. Do we know what her government’s strategy is for life beyond Covid. No, we do not.

The document published by the Scottish Government in August in response to its advisory group on economic recovery was long on platitudes, such as “building a greener, fairer and more equal society: a wellbeing economy” and remarkably short on practical detail. Friends of the Earth Scotland described it as “a woefully inadequate response to the scale of the challenges we face from Covid-19 and the climate emergency.”

Dangling the dizzy prospect of a second independence referendum in front of her faithful supporters may keep them on side, but it is not the same as a plan for national renewal.

MacMillan Cancer Care reckons it will take two years for the NHS to deal with the backlog of cancer patients. How many Scots will die needlessly before then?

Economists, such as the Fraser of Allender institute suggest it could take three years for our economy to recover. How many businesses will collapse and how many jobs will be lost before that happens?

Tracey Emin has a plan. She wants to do another show in Venice, find someone who loves her for who she is, and loves her art. And she would “like to have a vagina back.”

Scotland needs a plan too. The First Minister should start by telling us how she envisions the pandemic ending. When is a vaccine likely to be available, and what is the plan for administering it?

Then she must offer a strategy for rebuilding our society. Not a vacuous position paper written by civil servants from the comfort of their home office, nor the promise of a nationalist nirvana if we leave the UK, but a costed recovery plan that makes sense to my daughter-in-law.

And if that means Sturgeon has to sit down with Rishi Sunak, to work on one, then so be it. Some things are more important than party politics.


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