Monday, March 09, 2020

Why the last two Up Helly Aas and the Shetland Folk Festival must be cancelled or postponed

Shetland's South Mainland Up Helly Aa is one of my favourite events in this 22,000-strong island community. It's an exuberant, modern take on the viking fire festival theme. It's welcoming, open, committed to equality and great fun. I'm due to provide commentary for the planned live webcast of SMUHA, as it's known.

It's set to happen on Friday, with the galley being burned in one of Shetland's most spectacular locations, the tombolo (double sided beach) at St Ninian's Isle. Hundreds of guizers will march together, bearing flaming torches. Then they will party the night and following morning away at five packed community halls scattered throughout the south of Shetland, visiting each in turn aboard buses aboard which the celebrations are, if anything, more extreme.

There will be eating, drinking and dancing. There will (or would normally) be follow-up partying and loads of visits to schools and ancillary events.

It is, in other words, a near-perfect vehicle for spreading a respiratory or contact virus. And the Scottish Government has confirmed that at least two cases of the COVID-19 Corona virus now exist in Shetland. More are suspected. All known victims are in isolation.

Delting Up Helly Aa is due next week, another fertile breeding ground for infection. As is the Shetland Folk Festival at the end of April, which will see dozens of musicians flying and ferrying into the isles from across the world. Then out again.

Don't forget that one SMUHA was nicknamed FLUHA because  of the post-celebration sickness which hit many who had participated.

I know that preparations for SMUHA, have been going on for the past year, and that the disappointment at cancellation will be enormous and hard to bear. I know it's the Folk Festival's 40th anniversary and the cost of cancellation or postponement will be high. I know too that there is a kind of devil-may-care attitude among some Shetlanders which says "it's only flu. We'll shrug it off."

But the elderly and the already sick or those with underlying health conditions may not.

To put it bluntly, they may die. If one person dies from COVID-19 and that infection can be traced back to a public event which could have been cancelled, how will those who gave it the go-ahead feel?

Please, let's not allow pride, arrogance and bloody-mindedness to lay Shetland's vulnerable elderly and unwell open to this virus.

This is not a joke. It's not 'media hype'. It's real, it's in our small community and it's time to act responsibly and quickly to try and stop this virus hitting the ones who can resist it least.

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