When the pandemic first hit last year, Britain was already becoming a divided place politically. Of course, there have always been opposing points of view and political parties vying for power but, for the most part, debates were generally good natured. And then the EU referendum happened and the opposing sides were called ‘racists’ and ‘snowflakes’, debate got more and more fiery. When the result to leave – a close result – came in, the temperature became even more heated. There were calls for a second referendum; political parties stood for staying in, another vote or leaving; there were arguments among families and friends. Brexit, as the referendum result was called, dominated the news to the extent that I am not entirely sure what else was going on in the world in those days. On the news in the evenings I could see EU protests behind the newsreader and at times I felt a sense of dread. People were very angry on both sides.
And then Brexit was forgotten about as if by magic. A pandemic hit the world and the news focused on that. And at the start, apart from the toilet paper wars in the supermarkets when shoppers greedily bought up all the remaining toilet rolls, there felt a sense of unity (to me at least). This type of crisis had never happened before in our lifetime and although we were stepping away from each other on our daily walks in case of infection, there still felt a sense of camaraderie. There was a NHS clap on Thursdays, 8pm sharp; Captain Tom with his £30 million fundraising walk around his garden; morale-boosting dances on TikTok; volunteers helping out… We were on the same page at last. Or so it seemed.
Except a darker, more judgemental side to humanity started coming out. From the best of intentions, the NHS clap became an excuse by some ‘clappers’ to judge their non-clapping neighbours. And some of those who didn’t clap couldn’t understand what they saw as the ‘virture signalling’ of the gesture. Lockdowns had many controversies in themselves. Some people wanted to stay locked down until the virus completely went away. Others believed lockdown was unnecessary and wrong from the very beginning. There were bickerings about the lockdown rules themselves.
It became illegal not to wear a mask in certain places (unless people had an exemption). I had no issue wearing one although they did make my glasses steam up! However, some people had genuine reasons for not being able to wear one. I know a man who, when visiting a book shop, was asked if he had asthma attacks when he told the bookseller he had asthma (one of the exemptions). Rather a personal question – needless to say, he didn’t buy anything from that shop.
I came across a Mumsnet forum about masks on the internet. A victim of sexual assault wasn’t able to wear a mask as covering her mouth up brought back horrific memories and gave her panic attacks. This was no excuse for some of the virtuous members of Mumsnet though, who always wore masks to look after others. The sexual assault victim was being selfish of course, at least in their eyes.
The latest bone of contention are the vaccines. I’ve had both so am no anti-vaxxer but believe that people should have a choice as to what goes into their body. But there is talk about vaccine passports (maybe it’s fine for big gatherings, if it’s on a strictly temporary basis – such as during an emergency, and there is an alternative of a test, but what if this isn’t the case?) I am no conspiracy theorist, but I do think that while we may currently accept we’re living in unprecedented times, we should always be aware of potential slippery slopes.
I have a friend who is reluctant to get a certain vaccine because there have been blood clots in her family and there have been reports of vaccine-related clots. She decided to wait until another vaccine became available. A very valid reason but I suspect she too feels judged.
A lot has happened over the past year. Some people have died, have suffered, are still suffering from the illness itself. Some are vulnerable because of health conditions and are frightened of getting Covid. Some haven’t been able to see their loved ones for many months because they live far away, in another country, or maybe they’re in a care home with strict rules. Lockdown isolation and loneliness has damaged some people’s mental health. And then others have lost jobs, businesses, wages, homes… And then there are those who are terrified of us all gradually slipping into a dystopian society. Who would have dreamt two years ago we would have accepted lockdowns? It would have been unheard of!
I read somewhere, we are all in the same storm but we’re in different boats. We all have our fears, but they may be of very different things and unfortunately there seems to be no one-fit-all solution. One person’s answer (lockdown) may feel like a recipe for destitution to another. Another solution which aims to save jobs (ending lockdown) may feel like inviting death.
Like Brexit, it often feels that society is becoming divided into ‘them’ and ‘us’. The non-mask wearers, mask wearers, vaccinated, non-vaccinated, the pro-lockdown, the anti-lockdown, the old, the young … Instead of an intelligent and measured debate, both sides resort to name calling – the sheeple and the covidiots. The lockdown lovers and the granny killers.
Like Brexit, why take part in a reasoned debate when you can call each other names like five-year-old children? When did life become so ‘black and white’ rather than have nuances of grey? I have been guilty of this way of thinking too, judging and making assumptions. I have also changed my mind several times over the last year. Covid has really made me realise how different all our lives, priorities and fears are. Same storm. Different boats.
There is a lot of division, hatred, fear and negativity in the world right now. It doesn’t have to be this way, in fact, in shouldn’t be this way. If humans are supposedly intelligent enough to fly into space, why can’t our species actually talk to each other, listen to each other and work with each other? Imagine what we could do with a little more cooperation and a little less judgement and hypocrisy? End poverty, stop persecution, hatred and wars, solve the climate change crisis, protect our vital natural wild spaces, save endangered animals from extinction..?
Live in a more peaceful and contented world?
Maybe it feels natural to fall back into our tribe mentality, especially when we feel fear, but I don’t think that’s good for our health. Which is ironic during a pandemic.