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Don’t speak to us like Covidiots, we’re just doing the best we can

I pick up some broccoli and potatoes, and walk into a local shop. Buying locally is safer surely, and I hate supermarkets anyway. The minute online ordering was possible, I was on it for all the bulky basics. For fresh fruit and veg? I could get those from around the corner. Easy.  

But nothing is easy anymore. As I go inside the shop, the woman at the till has no mask, and a man who has served me for years is also not wearing a mask. I stand back, and she points to her homemade badge saying that she is exempt from wearing one. She also tells me I should have some “respect” for her. I do, but why are all the guys in the shop also maskless and why put her in the most interactive role on the till? No one needs another row. Not even me.

We all agree to respect each other, which means she now has to respect that I won’t be buying anything there anymore. But what does “respect” in the current circumstances even mean? 

 It’s fine. There are plenty of other shops, but what if there weren’t? As I go past the park, I text my daughter who lives with me to tell her to avoid going, as it is as full as I have ever seen it. On my mind is a friend who is recovering from a bad bout of Covid and another who is not. If I got Covid, which camp would I be in? How did a small spud buying trip become so fraught? 

Compliance is so draining because it is not a one-off decision. Unless you are shielding, which has its own depleting loneliness, compliance is a series of small, snap, not always logical, decisions. Will I get on this bus? Does this post office queue feel safe? A distanced walk with a friend who just wants to nip in the house to use the loo? Can she?

The bigger stuff: should one of my daughters be sending her toddler back to nursery? Should my youngest be going back to university when it’s all online? Should I stop watching the news as every mindless wellness guru advises? 

The spiralling of anxiety is tangible, and I am in the privileged position of being able to work at home. As, it must be said, many lockdown sceptics are, too. Most of them have no real knowledge of science. They are often as much use as a homeopath in a car accident. Rub some arnica on it! Of course, I understand the appeal of breaking the rules. Indeed, it has often been my modus operandi. 

And then you have the conspiracy theorists. When many of us feel absolutely powerless, they find power in the secret knowledge that is hidden from the rest of us – because clearly none of us have ever heard of YouTube. But these extreme viral cheerleaders are out of tune with the public. Likewise, the Government who in the first wave underestimated our capacity to comply. 

In a recent piece for The British Medical Journal, Steve Reicher and John Drury pointed out a high adherence to lockdown rules, and polls showing that many think this should have happened sooner.

So this current castigating of individuals as weak, immoral failures is deeply unfair. Many people are simply at breaking point – suffering from depression, a lack of income and, if you are young, wrestling with a future that looks bleak. What has really been lacking this entire time is any emotionally intelligent messaging. From Boris Johnson’s macho “beating the virus” war metaphors to now, Chris Whitty’s doom-laden scaremongering.  

The onus may well be on each of us to make the best choices we can but, if anything, the pandemic has underlined our interdependence. For every package I get delivered so I can adhere to the stay at home message and avoid a chain of transmission, there are the pickers and packers and delivery drivers who can’t because of that choice I have made.  

Yes, there are some selfish people around. When is it deemed necessary for footballers to go to Dubai or wise for council leaders to holiday in the Maldives while simultaneously warning residents to “stay local”? But it is not the “little people” who are selfish.

We know that many don’t self-isolate because they simply cannot afford to. People are sending their children to school not because they are selfish. They may need to work, and also be deeply concerned about their child’s ability to socialise, never mind get educated. The lack of women making key decisions at the top of government has never been so apparent. Somehow, education becomes part of domestic labour that women must just do for free.  

Blaming people with very few choices is not a strategy. We don’t need more punitive messages when most of us just want to get through the next few weeks. Bombarded by a blur of statistics, we each assess our own risks. Can the virus be transmitted outside? At what distance? Are nurseries safe? Ultimately, we need clarity, not false hope and muddy messages which don’t give us the answers we need. 

We also need to be spoken to as if we are people just trying to do the best we can; not like we are a bunch of Covidiots.

Minimise contact is the message. So that has to come with another message. Maximum support, whether that be food or shelter. It’s bad, we know that. We don’t need another graph to tell us. 

But part of the reason this lockdown feels worse for many, is not just because of the new mutant strain, but because there is no unity about it. Threatening tighter restrictions from on high as though we are naughty kids does not work.

We will do what we need to do, but right now from day to day, we are often unsure about what the right thing is.

Read Suzanne Moore’s column online or in The Daily Telegraph every Tuesday.

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