The British and Scottish governments are correct to shut down half of Edinburgh’s economy to prevent the spread of the virus COVID-19. Indeed, there is something beautifully humane about instigating such phenomenal disruption in order to safeguard the lives of some of our society’s sickest and most elderly people. The current containment strategies proclaim that the value of human life is indivisible and that there is no class of people who are inferior or expendable.
That said, there is no way out of it being an either/or. Saving all of the tiny breadcrumbs will result in a significant loss of freshness to the loaf as a whole. A longer pandemic will mean that fewer people will die and that the NHS won’t spiral into mayhem, but it will in equal measure lengthen the coming recession and make everybody poorer and poorer.
It is very easy for a government to ban things and shut things down. It is far more complicated to intervene sensitively in an ailing zero-hour economy, to keep disposable income flowing and the usual mass employers solvent. This could be a description of Edinburgh in a few months, if not already. International tourism, one of the biggest tricks in the city’s box, has been essentially discontinued until further notice. Edinburgh airport is presently negotiating staff redundancies, with a figure of one hundred jobs for starters.
Edinburgh University, the city’s third largest employer, is also probably going into hibernation for at least a semester. There will be no exams at all this summer for first and second year students; the remainder will somehow take place online. This is a far more dubious strategy than the curtailment of tourism because it involves masses of people leaving Edinburgh and being dispersed across the country. Many English first and second year students were flocking to the airport yesterday, no doubt with the virus riding piggyback and being borne gaily home to their families. Still, the university cannot detain its students here indefinitely and so maybe it was better to act sooner.
Tourism, hospitality and education are amongst this city’s chief industries. If Chinese tourists come to Edinburgh to see its sights, or if Chinese students rent accommodation in the city, then this is synonymous with exporting factory goods made in Edinburgh to China. In 2017, 34,600 people were directly employed in Edinburgh’s tourism sector, which is near to being one in ten of the city’s workers. Moreover, this is a workforce that spends more simply by virtue of having lower incomes. Hospitality and tourism generally attract younger workers – people who live hand to mouth – who will immediately pump their cash back into the city’s economic cycles again.
Barely a month ago, Donald Anderson was rejoicing prematurely in the Scotsman that, “in parts of Edinburgh, unemployment was as high as 25 per cent or more in the 1980s, but booming numbers of tourists have brought jobs and helped reduce poverty.” Edinburgh’s economy is actually pretty diverse, with finance and biotech being comparable to the tourism sector in the numbers that they employ, Nonetheless, with unemployment from this sector beginning to visibly straddle the landscape, what can check the crisis?
Firstly, companies that were starved of labour over the last few years might have new workers and skills available to them, allowing them to expand. The problem is that these skills are not immediately transferable to other, productive sectors of the economy. Secondly, the coronavirus could generate unforeseen employment opportunities; for example, a crisis of confidence in supermarkets could lead to greater home delivery. Thirdly, unquarantined or disobedient UK tourists might try to compensate for missing out on the continent by sneaking discreetly off to the only British city that possesses the romance of Paris and the fairytale twinkle of Krakow: yes, ours.
The Edinburgh Fringe could still also go ahead. It might eke out some continued existence in places away from the Royal Mile, in shows that conform to Nicola Sturgeon’s guidelines by playing to houses of no more than 499 (including the cast and staff). Careful counting will become a prized skill. The Fringe has not been explicitly cancelled and the authorities seem to be giving it noncommittal encouragement. Across the city, however, many people who work in hospitality and tourism have grown alert to how increasingly faintly this lodestar is shining. Or rather, it is not a hope that you could ever safely lean on and give yourself to.
There are swift stages of excitement, shock and depression that thousands of workers across the city who have never met each other are probably going through in exactly the same sequence. There was a period early in the crisis when everybody was making chatty and very merry jokes about the virus, which they will now look back upon ruefully, marvelling at their enchanted innocence. The shock of the situation suddenly came to me yesterday. It reminded me of that dismay when you pounce startled out of sleep moments after dropping off, feeling horrifyingly weightless and vulnerable.
At my work, I was talking to people a lot, searching for reassurance, but everybody was stopping short of discussing the crisis beyond a certain agreed point. Everybody is quietly monitoring what is happening. Such is the crisis that it is now one of those rare times when your normal individuality appears disturbingly uninteresting and irrelevant, like a suit that becomes discarded in the heat. We are all trapped in the same unfolding process, and we are no longer able to put the disaster from our minds or to really refer to our own lives in isolation.
If I can speak to what was left unsaid yesterday, it is a mass scepticism about whether the economic system can honestly cope with several months of widespread unemployment. If much of the working population is eventually asked to “self-isolate,” this will require suspending the zero-hour economy and adding up to two million new workers to the UK’s sick-pay payroll. This would be a mass recruitment exercise, comparable in scale to hiring a workforce larger than that of the NHS. It is uncertain that employers between them have the pockets to afford this or that we can state-spend our way out of such a hole. In Edinburgh, the bill is made much steeper by the costs of rent. At the same time, asking the unemployed to somehow pay these costs themselves will suppress demand in the economy for everything aside from housing and the basics. This is to write the coming recession a blank cheque.
One of the few positive aspects of the crisis is the hilarity about toilet paper. Supermarkets have run out of this trivial, largely worthless resource and everybody is currently plotting to seize new supplies or to identify some tolerable substitute. In every supermarket, all of the customers are now suspiciously peeking at each other’s baskets. This unexpected purchasing reflex amongst consumers is mystifying – to bulk buy toilet paper rather than foodstuffs is surely, if I can manage to tastefully phrase such a vulgar thing, to set the cart before the horse. What is this surreal mass artwork, or absurdist-conceptual supermarket installation, that we have all conspired to create between us? It is like a tiny harmless dosage of the wider disaster that we are using to mentally get to grips with its more serious implications. Like a vaccine, in fact.
I have enough cash to hopefully make it to the end of the crisis, barring radical inflation or a new spike in coronavirus infections in the autumn. I have realised, however, that this is only partially an economic crisis. My work, like many in Edinburgh, involves a team of very different people working together, in a complicated social system, in order to infinitely sharpen the efficiency of our organisation. This is in essence what human beings are made to do. There will be thousands of people in Edinburgh like myself who are completely unsuited to solitude and who will swiftly find its reality to be unbearable. Never has that maxim that is attributed (not entirely fairly) to Jean-Paul Sartre ever sounded so untrue. Hell is self-isolation.