2007 - 2021

Checking In

A young woman is standing on the steps leading up to the front door of a budget hotel. Her luggage – possibly all of her worldly belongings – are in black plastic bags bundled at her feet. In her arms, she cradles a tiny pot plant. The woman looks up and around. She appears to be hesitating, unsure of what happens next. She is clearly not checking in for a holiday. Embarrassed to be caught staring, I look away and back to my screen.

It’s week five in lockdown-land. I know this from watching the news. From watching out the window of my tenement flat, I also know that the world is as unfair as it always has been. Everything and everyone might be connected in a crisis but some will be more equal than others in how they experience it. Lockdown is merely reflecting back home truths.

The news on screens tells me that we may, or may not, have passed the peak of coronavirus deaths in the UK. For certain, it is a time of extremes. Too much work for those on the frontline of emergency services and deliveries. Not enough, or no work, for those in precarious employment situations. Extreme loneliness for those living alone and extreme claustrophobia for those cooped up indoors with caring responsibilities and relationships stressed to breaking point. Left unchecked, this loneliness and stress may prove to be bigger killers than any virus. The gaping wounds of a mental health crisis will remain for a long time after a cure for the virus is found.

Pushed to the extremities, one day fugs into another because how we experience time is not linear. Similarly, self-care in a crisis is not a continuous progression toward productivity and happiness. There are good days, bad days and days that all feel much the same.

I’m noticing that I feel more anxious than ever. My concentration span is shot to pieces and I can barely focus on basic admin amidst the clamour and clutter of the noisy internet. Annoyingly, the extended period of isolation does not feel like the creative retreat it ought to be for a self-professed introvert. Rather, every awkward farewell on a Zoom call for work or social gatherings appears like a game-over message in which we watch our pained reflections in a slow-wave for help.

And it’s those not on the Zoom calls that we most need to check in on. Philosophising about system change and new economic models isn’t a priority when you’re worried about how you will cook a meal or next get a wash.

In Edinburgh, as in other cities, some hotel bedrooms and Air BnB flats left unoccupied due to coronavirus are now being used as safe accommodation for homeless people. These are not the luxury five-star hotels of the city centre but basic hostels and hotels that typically lack laundry or cooking facilities. The hotel on my street is one such property. Some of its twelve new residents told me that they have one microwave to share and must wash clothes in bedroom sinks. In such situations, social distancing is near-impossible and housing charities have warned that permanent, local solutions will need to be found here and in other cities around the world.

A global health pandemic doesn’t respect sovereign borders and the strong-man politics of taking back control. It requires us to stay local and be interdependent with neighbours. This is familiar ground for me. I wrote a book about how the global and the local intersect at street-level and about how the stories from the many streets that make up a nation is an expression of our collective wellbeing.

While many spend their lockdown days in their back gardens, ripping up weeds and tending seeds, others are cautiously unpacking pot plants in empty hotel rooms. Wherever the tactility of hand-holding and hugs is absent, we reach for and grasp signs of new life where we can find it.

I’m also a young woman with houseplants and window boxes in place of my own garden. Restrictions and financial uncertainty have pressed pause on immediate plans to move to a home with outdoor space. Like the cancelled holiday to visit relatives abroad and the hiatus on starting my own family, these are small, personal losses that accumulate to form a weighty and stubborn loss. It feels indulgent to vocalise these losses in the context of others grieving and exhausted from bereavement or tough life choices, but they are losses nonetheless. And after sadness and anger comes a quiet acceptance. An acceptance that nothing lasts forever.

In her acclaimed essay for the Financial Times, author Arundhati Roy reminded us that “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”

Here in the UK, we can still remember the recent past we have come from – February and early March of this year, when we kept calm and carried on as normal while the government sleep-walked us into a nightmare of denial about our readiness for a health crisis. The dereliction of public health duty may have been so grave that we will one day assess the decisions it led to as violations of the right to human dignity.

We don’t yet know where we’re headed. These are days suspended between the old world of profit and property before people and a potential brave, new world where the needs of the most vulnerable and marginalised, including the homeless, are prioritised.

I believe there was hope contained in the green leaves of the pot plant that my new neighbour brought with her-hope for a fairer, kinder world where we can all feel safe, secure and have our dreams realised. And I am hopeful that the enforced pause will be a chance to take stock of the priorities we want to carry with us into whatever happens next.

Dignity is hope’s companion. There is dignity in checking loss and knowing that the work of re-imagining the future is hard. We can always spare a little dignity, for ourselves and one another.

Comments (16)

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  1. squigglypen says:

    More than dignity required.Food ..jobs…once your belly’s full you can start to look around.

  2. Ian S says:

    “I’m noticing that I feel more anxious than ever. My concentration span is shot to pieces and I can barely focus on basic admin amidst the clamour and clutter of the noisy Internet”

    This is my experience too. I feel guilty that I haven’t managed to run a marathon round my living room, or post a jolly tweet about shaving my beard off, or finally learn Spanish or learn how to make sourdough bread. Instead my experience has mainly been about existence, about learning not to judge myself harshly every day.

    Thank you for writing such a lovely article. The contrast with the ‘keep fun and carry on’ ethos is very welcome, and spiritually nourishing.

  3. SleepingDog says:

    If keeping people hungry and dirty preventing them from contemplating revolution, I think we would have seen a lot less revolts in history than we have. More likely, I imagine people will be thinking “this system is not working, perhaps there is a better alternative”. And, you know, multi-tasking and stuff. Systemic attempts to dehumanize, to degrade, to create a people of the abyss are bad enough without help. In Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution, the author supplies numerous examples of people turning away from long- or recently-established ideologies precisely in times of poverty and despair, to new, radical and more inclusive ideas where everyone can be saved.

  4. Tim Hoy says:

    Like most posts I’m reading on Bella Caledonia, this was beautifully and thoughtfully written, adding to my own empathy that I have for those less fortunate. Each post I consider good enough to share on social media causes me to donate either to an organisation that is affected by the issues of the prose or to Bella Caledonia itself. This article was the final one that convinced me to set up a standing order. I’d not heard of them a couple of months ago, but the consistently high standard of writing makes me want to make sure it is sustainable with no adverts or paywall. Thank you Bell and thank you Jemma.

    1. Thanks so much Tim, we’re delighted to be able to publish writers of the quality of Jemma and so many others, and are slightly terrified that all our supporters will depart, so many many thanks in these difficult times

      1. Tim Hoy says:

        As I may have already alluded, I am in a very much better place than so many others during this “Zirus” as my (nearly) three year old granddaughter calls it.

        I’m retired, have no mortgage and a pension. I could, like the really rich big guns, wash my hands of those who are not so fortunate but that’s not actually what the essential hand washing reference relates to.

        With so much misinformation, spin, PR, advertising by mainstream media and their lobbying, big, dirty, corrupt, tax dodging, cheating, selfish sponsors (too many adjectives?) and other self interest merchants, It’s so refreshing to read well written prose that hasn’t been edited to portray a completely fictional and misleading piece of journalism.

        In short (who me?) I’m sick and tied of being lied to.

        Every Bella Caledonia article I’ve shared on social media has received really constructive and hugely positive feedback on the quality of prose. I’m going nowhere and not just because of lock down.

        Thanks again for hosting these exceptional writers.

        Keep em coming.

        In case it’s not obvious, I have time on my hands.

        1. Jo says:


          Your own posts here were an enjoyable read too.

  5. Sharon Gunason Pottinger says:

    By all means share dignity. And perhaps provide access to your laundry facilites? Sometimes dignity comes in the simple things like a washing load of clean clothes.

  6. Jo says:

    Really enjoyed this. Thank you Jemma.

  7. Mach1 says:

    Yes, a poignant read. But it is time for a great deal more debate, and forensic analysis, of the current crisis and the lockdown response, which, I suspect, is already friable and not helped by the reappearance of BoJo in the sunlight outside No 10 this morning. It is also essential that scepticism, and the interrogation of authority, are maintained in this most improbable of public health emergencies. (For an informed view, watch Dr John Ioannidis, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QUvWaxuurzQ).

    It is now vital that democratic governments across the world prepare themselves to give a full account to their electorates as to how we are best to emerge from this emergency. That needs to include clear timetabling, and where rights of movement are restricted, clear rationales for the continued application of restrictions to the healthy adult population. To assist this, full and open statistics on actual death tolls from COVID, rather than deaths with COVID, need to be provided, as do full accounts of the death tolls in English and Welsh care homes so far missing from regular outdates. The UK government’s reluctance to do this muddles who is most at risk of the coronavirus and glosses over the failings of our privately run, local authority funded, austerity-stricken care sector.

    We are at a very dangerous point in the national response to the crisis. Now more than ever it is essential to get ahead of Tory platitudes to set out a way to get Scotland back to some semblance of normality in relatively short order. At which point, a full examination of the science behind this unprecedented lockdown needs to be interrogated with the objectivity so clearly missing from current media coverage of this latest WHO-declared pandemic.

    PS The R rate according to Ioannidis has always been below 1, based on the Diamond Princess sample, when weighted for age. Dr Neil Ferguson really needs to be first in line to give an account of his modelling at the inevitable public inquiry to come.

    1. Legerwood says:

      Getting back to normality in ‘relatively short order’. I think not. There is too much we do not know about this virus and its effects for example, this emerging story

      Even for those who have ‘recovered’ the longer term effects on their health of their brush with the virus is not known. Whether they are now immune and how long that immunity will last for is not known with sufficient degree of certainty.

      Ca’ canny needs to be the order of the day

      1. Wul says:

        Got to love the casual way you strike fear into the hearts of both parents and people who’ve had the virus, just to illustrate your point.

      2. Gill B says:

        Dearest Legerwood,
        Absolutely not diminishing the tragedy of any single death or illness, however, we may liberate ourselves of this infernal dread and fear if we begin to question the style of reporting in most media (thankfully, not BC) and the incredulously vast number of deaths and suffering ignored /largely unreported, for example, worldwide pollution… more than seven million deaths every year! Yet no global panic and no immediate shut down of filthy heavy industry? (no less drastic than the current inhalation of OUR economy -as opposed to the economy of the global elite)
        There is no longer such a thing as non-bias MSM. PLEASE question everything.

      3. Mach1 says:

        Hi Leggy,
        think you misread: ‘[it] is essential to get ahead of Tory platitudes to set out a way to get Scotland back to some semblance of normality in relatively short order’. Any return to a semblance of normality is likely to be protracted, but we should expect our government to set out its road map (awful phrase) asap. This is the real priority at this point, since, from my own observation, many people are starting to ‘do a Calderwood ‘ with respect to the official advice… mouth the guidance, then ignore them in practice. Stay safe.

    2. Gill B says:

      Mach1, I suspect you’ll wait a terribly long time for any clarity or enquiries on this WHO declared pandemic… perhaps longer than many of our own healthy lives.
      I dare to suggest that the mixed messaging of ‘from’ or ‘with’ COVID alongside the eagerness for deaths to be registered as ‘presumed’ COVID, where the slightest chink of doubt can be detected, are all Confusion By Design… worldwide!
      Perhaps we can reasonably conclude for ourselves that we have, and are still having, the wool firmly (if obviously) pulled over our frightened eyes… and any ‘enquiry’ would be no more than continued sham?
      A very different future would be my choice -without wasting untold ££££s on any heavily weighted enquiries.
      Unfortunately, I am clueless as to how we effect such change.

  8. James Forth says:

    Evocative, emotive and excellent writing. The details really bring home the misery of the situation: looks exchanged, clothes washed in sinks, shared microwaves.

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