Umberto Chiappe, restaurant manager of  La Lanterna West End restaurant on Great Western Road, Glasgow places a sign at the entrance reminding people to socially distance.

In the seventh part of a series exploring how life in Scotland has been changed by the pandemic, Ben Wray explains why local government has to be reimagined 

PERHAPS the most important effect of the pandemic – and the least understood – is the way it has changed Scotland as a society. Lockdowns, masks and Covid passports have changed all of our day-to-day lives. Basic things we could take for granted in our culture – going to a restaurant, seeing a band – are now much more complicated.

And if it was once true that we spent more time at work with our colleagues than we did with our families, for many that is now a distant memory. Home working has fundamentally altered our social relationships.

To what extent are these changes transitory, or will they lead to a permanent transformation in Scottish society? And has the experience of lockdown and social distancing made us think differently about what it means to have a good life?

READ MORE: How Covid changed Scotland: What has the pandemic taught us about education?

A musician in lockdown

For Calum Mason, a Glasgow-based musician, lockdown came as a shock to the system. Used to regular gigs and the socialising that goes along with that, suddenly the gigs were no more and he was stuck at home.

“I definitely had to adapt myself more to the digital world, presenting what I do online rather than in person,” he told The National. “Basically all of my income before lockdown was acquired from live music, so I had to immediately change from gigging to writing, recording and releasing music, and hopefully making a little bit of money that way.”

For Mason, this turned out to be a success. He wrote his first solo album in lockdown, Panopticon, which was released on March 4.

“It wasn’t fun going from being an extremely sociable person to being stuck in a flat and that’s why I redirected all of my energy into writing the album,” he says.

But writing an album doesn’t pay the bills. Mason managed to survive the pandemic financially through support from Creative Scotland grants and picking up a part-time job on a construction site. He remains committed to being a professional musician but says it is far from easy.

“I’ve seen venues shutdown, others using things like crowdfunding just to survive,” he said. “A lot of musicians who were already dabbling with other work have decided to lean into that work instead of focusing on music.

“To be honest, many of us who have been doing this for a while know it is a very unstable environment to work in, before Covid as well. There’s not really any framework which exists to make a regular salary as a freelance musician. It’s just about getting your foot in the door with certain people.”

Mason says the government could help to provide some financial stability for professional musicians: “An income for musicians if they play a quota of gigs at government validated venues over a year, or something along those lines.”

Iain Black, professor in marketing and retail at the University of Stirling, agrees with Mason that “the answer cannot just be ‘leave it to the market’,”. “The government has to build a framework which supports participation, creativity and entrepreneurship, and then you will get a diffusion of innovation in society,” he says.

Black is particularly concerned about the decline of available public spaces to aid creative endeavours, whether it is musicians without venues, sports teams without pitches, or community groups without meeting rooms, all three of which have been affected by local government cutbacks during the pandemic.

He said: “There’s no shortage of things for communities to come together and do but it’s the availability of physical space to do anything [that is the issue]. Space is at such a premium because so much of it has been commodified. If you were thinking about starting something new now, where would you go to meet and discuss it?”
Umberto Chiappe, restaurant manager of  La Lanterna West End restaurant on Great Western Road, Glasgow places a sign at the entrance reminding people to socially distance.

Callum Mason

Digital domination and mental health

The most obvious societal trend of the pandemic has been to accelerate the digital domination of our lives. Whether it is e-retail, social media or home working, a great deal of our lives which we used to spend offline has now been digitised. For Black, this is a dangerous development for society.

He says: “We can be ultra-connected online but it is in ways which neuropsychologists tell us is a poor proxy for real social relationships. It’s a mirage of real relationships, and that is leading to social fragmentation.”

While 36% of Scots said in a survey that local community has become more important to them since the pandemic, a greater number (43%) feel Covid has increased social divisions. Social media surely has something to do with this.

“There’s lots of research now on what parts of the brain social media motivates and what parts of our social understanding and social abilities it crushes,” Black says. “It’s entirely predictable that something like Twitter has the effect on mental health that it has, because we need face-to-face social cues to stop ourselves from being aggressive.”

Fourteen per cent of Scots say they are not coping well mentally with the pandemic, a figure which rises to 30% for those with pre-existing mental health issues. The problem is particularly severe for adolescents, with one recent studying finding up to 13% met clinical thresholds for depression and/or anxiety. Mason, 32, says he knows younger people in the music scene have found lockdown particularly difficult.

‘I think if it was 10 years ago I would have really struggled because it felt a requirement mentally to be constantly socialising with people because that’s part of being young, you are trying to learn about yourself through your relationships with others,” he says.

“Music is a means by which people dance, congregate, hang out and spend time with one another, so having that disappear for young people is a bit of a nightmare.”

Latest figures show a waiting list of 11,816 for Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services (Camhs) as of September 2021, an increase from 9699 in September 2020, and 56% of those have waited more than 18 weeks to be seen.

“For adults, the figures show some improvement, with less people waiting for psychological therapies in September 2021 than the year previous, and with shorter waiting times. The Scottish Government is putting £120 million of additional investment into mental health services this year, which will go towards their target of recruiting 320 additional Camhs staff over the next five years. This will increase capacity by more than 10,000 cases. Black says

the investment in mental health services is laudable but won’t tackle the roots of the crisis.

“It’s terrific that mental health is being considered as no longer something to be othered and is brought in to the mainstream, but it’s a sticking plaster if we are not tackling the root causes of what’s leading to our brains being stressed and overwhelmed.”

Umberto Chiappe, restaurant manager of  La Lanterna West End restaurant on Great Western Road, Glasgow places a sign at the entrance reminding people to socially distance.

Time for life?

The so-called Great Resignation, where an abnormally high number of workers are voluntarily leaving their jobs during the pandemic, is partly the economic effect of a tighter labour market but it also points to lockdowns motivating a shift in priorities, where wellbeing is put before a higher salary and career development.

The momentum behind the idea of a four-day working week is another indicator of changing attitudes to work. One poll found 80% of Scots believe it would have a positive effect on their wellbeing. Unhappiness with current work patterns is of no surprise to Black.

“There are a lot of drivers taking us to the thought of ‘wouldn’t it be better if we could spend our lives doing something that is meaningful?’,” he says. “And the jobs that are meaningful are being swamped by overwork and managerialism.”

The Scottish Government has backed the idea of a four-day week and is supporting pilots but it would take currently reserved powers over employment law and real radical intent to deliver a four-day week for all of Scotland’s workers with no loss of pay. Despite that, Black believes there are many indirect ways in which the government could incentivise people to move to a four-day week voluntarily.

“The reason we are going to continue to fail to get to a more balanced life is because we’ll be dragged back by the ever-increasing difficulty of meeting our basic service needs,” he says. “If you had a different approach to something like land policy, for example, you could easily have cheaper housing, which would lower the cost of living.”

This is certainly high up the priority list for most of the public. One poll found 76% of Scots believe better quality and more affordable housing should be the government’s top spending priority. With the cost of living rising, all talk of big ideas like a four-day week will quickly “crumble” if these “essential life services” aren’t made cheaper, Black says.

“If the cost of living rises, the amount of time we have to spend making money will increase,” he says. “So unless we deal with those basic issues we will just continue to have top-level conversations about wellbeing which will collapse when it hits the reality of paying bills.”

The need to make it cheaper to live is about tackling poverty but it’s also about building the social fabric of society. It’s more difficult to meet and do things with others if it is expensive to do so.

“If you haven’t got much money it’s a very rational thing to do to sit down in your lounge and watch the TV, because it’s cheap,” Black says. “It’s the cost of the outdoors which pushes us back into the house.”

The magnetic pull of the home-digital sphere is enormous, but the lockdowns have also reminded us of how important spending time in nature and with friends. The battle over how we spend our time will be critical to whether Scotland comes out of the pandemic as a healthy society.