It was colder in those times. We had a fire in the kitchen which my grandmother lit, using newspaper and sticks to ignite the coal. The milk arrived in a horse-drawn trap and if we were lucky, we had an egg for breakfast. My mother had shown us how to make decorations, coloured paper chains and lanterns, which we hung in the front room. When we woke on Christmas mornings, we found that Father Christmas had left a few parcels at the end of our beds and we opened them excitedly – a book, a toy teak hippopotamus, some sweeties.
I still have Hippo. He had come in a parcel from Africa, where my father was at the time in the Army. Few of us had fathers then; they were all away in the war and my friends, the girls next door, were never to see theirs again. Granny went to church and then we had the best meal of the year, a chicken from a local farm and a plum pudding cooked by mother. Christmas was a day that we looked forward to and enjoyed, a day of light in a succession of dark years.
Hippo, now nearly 80 years old, has lost a leg and a tooth but serves as a reminder of a time of great austerity when the news was always bad and the future dreaded. We were a middle-class professional family, but the austerity was shared by all. To have lived through such times, to have experienced war as a child, with the nocturnal sirens and air raid shelters, gives one a perspective and perhaps allows one to view our present troubles with something approaching equanimity. It certainly has taught me that the past 40 years of increasing self-indulgence and decreasing care for the welfare of others in a get-rich-quick Thatcherite society has been a period of aberrant and socially harmful behaviour that is unsustainable.
It is now apparent that, as expected, the Omicron variant is dominant, and COVID-19 has spread very rapidly. Hundreds of thousands have caught it though most infections are relatively mild. Nevertheless, thousands will find themselves in hospital and some have died. Whether you or I are among these depends on our behaviour and how many people we mix with over the next few weeks. It is as simple as that, and it does not much depend on what governments tell us to do; it is our own common sense that matters.
If you have read my articles, you will know how it spreads and how to protect yourselves. Think of everyone you are close to as potentially having the virus in their breath and act accordingly. Those who refuse vaccination without good reason epitomise the selfishness of the worst of their generation, in striking contrast to those who suffer from their behaviour and who care for them if they end in hospital. It remains true that most in intensive care are not fully vaccinated.
Times are hard again for many, and children now will have memories of a different sort to mine. In contrast to the time when my mother, brother and I went for refuge from the bombing to live with my grandmother, they will remember a time when the fun of Christmas, until now a happy secular period of over-indulgence, became one in which they feared visiting their grandparents in case they infected or even killed us. Many children, let us not forget, will not have received showers of presents or had parties with their friends this Christmas. Many will shiver when their mothers can't pay the fuel bills. And many will have had their first experience of the death of a loved one. Few of us will look back on this and the previous Christmas as particularly happy or merry. Sobering is what I would call them. But I do see a couple of rays of light ahead.
As Omicron has shown all of us all how evolution works, as it replaces Delta, most people now have realised what we are up against and are in general behaving responsibly. More people are acting as supportive members of society, helping others less fortunate, looking out for the vulnerable, volunteering. There is genuine concern for the elderly in care homes and appreciation of those working in those homes and in hospitals and the NHS generally.
We are becoming aware of things we have learned to take for granted – the delivery of our food and mail, the clearing of our waste, all the people who do not have the luxury of being able to work from home but who commute daily in public transport to keep our society working. These are the ones who are most likely to have been in hospital or even died from Covid, but who serve our needs. In Scotland and the UK generally, the social gradient in deaths from COVID-19 is appalling – the least well off fifth of the population has suffered double the mortality of the most well off fifth. This is a shocking indictment of our governments, UK and Scottish, over the past 40 years.
There are many causes of this, from poor diet and housing to dangerous habits and mental insecurity, but relative poverty lies behind all. We have seen the opposite in the stories surrounding Epstein and Maxwell and in television programmes on Dubai, the gross extravagance of the super-rich, but I and many readers are also among those who could have contributed to the data in the right-hand bars, the comfortable 40%. If we are deprived at all it is only of things we don't really need.
There is a lesson in this for all of us. The next figure shows the relationship in the UK in 2013 between household income and carbon footprint. Note the scales which double at each point
. The straight dashed line shows a 1% increase in carbon output per 1% rise in income. The simple message is that, in 2013, if your household annual income was around £50,000, your carbon footprint would have been about 30 tonnes on average whereas that of those with an income below £8,000 would have been around 10 tonnes. Then, remembering the log-log scale, imagine the footprint of the super-rich, a group generously represented on UK Government benches and in the Cabinet.
Poverty puts people at greater risk of illness, misery, premature death, and of both committing and suffering from crime. Wealth puts the whole world at risk of increasing floods, storms, wildfires, loss of crops and the need to migrate. However, a ray of light comes from the fact that people in general are now adapting, evolving even, to a more sustainable way of life in society, forced by the restrictions necessary to protect ourselves from infection. Coincidentally, this has forced us to reduce our carbon footprints by reducing travel.
Look again at the graph and note the proportion caused by transport. Here lies an obvious opportunity for us, for our New Year resolutions. Several of my friends and neighbours have now changed to electric cars and a few are putting up solar panels. Many Edinburgh schools now have large solar arrays funded by a local cooperative and the council is introducing electric buses and even extending the tram line. Then look at the dotted line called 'indirect' – this represents consumption other than in household power and travel, buying all the things we want rather than need, new clothes, too much food from overseas, expensive electronic gadgets rather than a football, lots of stuff in unrecyclable packaging, and so on. Covid's curb on what some regard as 'retail therapy' has been positively beneficial.
There is a political message in this for both our governments. We have watched the UK Government descend under the past three Prime Ministers into a mire of incompetence and corruption, now led by a man shown to be a Wizard of Oz, seen as untrustworthy by other world leaders. This government includes people who misled the public on glorious opportunities of Brexit. Eight members of the Cabinet are themselves beneficiaries of a Great Britain that welcomed their families as immigrants fleeing persecution or seeking opportunities but are now collectively responsible for a lesser Britain whose treatment of such poor people is despicable.
With such a bad example of government in the south, it is depressing that Scottish Governments have performed so poorly, allowing this country to drift further into inequality, and until very recently neglected the opportunities in renewable power, irrationally relying on future profits from fossil fuel. There is little evidence that it has shown itself to be able to redress the inequalities in our society as it clings to its comfort blanket of blaming Westminster. A good government governs well for all despite the obstacles.
Now we are in a new year with all the old problems still here. But it is a year when we really need to change and press for change. We in the columns on the right of the first figure need to make a real effort to reduce our carbon footprints (see SR 18 August 2021
) and to move to a more sustainable lifestyle. My first ray of light suggests that people are beginning to grasp this. Our governments need to look at both figures and ask themselves how they can reduce these inequalities, and we need to consider how our votes can realistically bring change in both UK and Scotland. Ideologies of left and right disappear when a nation is confronted, as we are now, with the prospect of impending disaster. Climate change is bringing disaster for the world and no country will be immune, but COVID-19 is forcing us to change our ways.
A second ray of light is that the people in England deceived by recent UK Governments have at last begun to realise what has been going on and it is being reflected in the voting in by-elections. Even the people of rural Shropshire, as Tory as you can get, can no longer stomach them. There are times in the history of the UK when rotten government needs to be replaced to avoid catastrophe. Cromwell had the words for it, echoed by Leo Amery in 1940: 'You have sat here too long for any good you are doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!'
Two rays of light in dark times: we are learning to adapt to both COVID-19 and climate imperatives, and we can get rid of bad politicians. Let us make 2022 a year to reflect that our lives as a society can change for the better as we confront these challenges. Let us consider carefully what we can do to improve the governance of the whole United Kingdom by our votes and advocacy. But for now, please act sensibly and, thanks to vaccines and our good behaviour, in a few weeks' time life will start to improve again.
Anthony Seaton is Emeritus Professor of Environmental and Occupational Medicine at Aberdeen University and Senior Consultant to the Edinburgh Institute of Occupational Medicine. The views expressed are his own