I’ve always been a stickler for the rules. And on Covid, I’m starting to feel like the only one

As I walk past crammed pubs and see friends hug on Instagram, I fear we've lost the collective solidarity we had in the spring.  

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A few weekends ago, a friend moved to hug me goodbye, and when I stepped away to stop her, she recoiled from me as if I’d kicked her pet kitten.

There was a time, not that long ago, when there was a universal, unspoken assumption that we would not touch each other; today, it’s up for discussion. Once, crossing the road or holding back to avoid walking past someone was seen as sensible, even caring; now, it somehow feels passive aggressive.

Even as the social distancing guidelines started to become more restrictive again, I walked past pubs crammed with people and their pints, and watched friends post photographs of themselves on Instagram with their arms around each other, feeling as though reality has been split in two. As though the anxiety- and number-filled corona-verse I thought we were living in had been replaced by another, carefree world, and no one thought to let me know. (Perhaps, hopefully, this is an unrepresentative impression: I mostly move – in both real life and on social media – in circles of the under-40s, who face a lower risk from coronavirus and behave accordingly.)

I still shrink back, press myself into corners and against walls, instinctively hold my breath (probably not a proven defence against coronavirus, I’ll admit), when I cross paths with someone on the pavement. I have had “Happy Birthday” stuck in my head since March. I wonder if I will ever again return to congested, enclosed spaces – a bar, a gig – without feeling like my throat is crawling, like bristles have broken out through my skin.

Assiduous rule-following is not the most endearing part of my character, and it does not sit easily with me as a result. I don’t want to be seen as a bore, but the rules, they call to me. Social convention dictates that people who disregard them are fun, and those who uphold them are boring. In school we had names for such a person: nerd, teacher’s pet, buzz-kill. I have found these indictments returning to me often these past weeks, as I’ve questioned whether my despair at others’ laxity is a valid concern, or the disproportionate reaction of an oversized schoolgirl.

I’ve never been a rule-breaker. Every school report recorded my exemplary behaviour. Prefect, head of house, deputy head girl (the deputy part still hurts) – you get the idea. I remember, with a vivid and stinging shame, every instance I was told off as a child. Even at 28, I rarely cross the road without waiting for the green man. I expect other people to follow the rules, too: in primary school I had a rota for who was allowed to sit next to me at lunch each day. It’s not really my fault. I am the daughter of a head-teacher; I am genetically predisposed to be this way.

But there is a difference between following rules for the sake of following rules – an area in which, I’ll admit, I might need some help – and following rules for the sake of preserving life. Between blind respect for authority (and, to be clear, I by no means consider Boris Johnson the arbiter of logically constructed rules, nor commend going all Priti Patel on your neighbours), and conscious respect for others. The entreaty to “live a little” while others are dying is, to me, unforgivably glib.

We each do what small things we have to in order to get by, and I remind myself regularly that I cannot know or judge the intimate and possibly valid reason a stranger does not wear a mask, or is unable to keep their distance. But the statistical reality is that for the majority, a lack of caution is not a necessity, but some mix of denial, ignorance and fatigue.

The government has put the burden on the individual to follow the restrictions so that it can direct any blame away from itself. In doing so it has shifted the national mind-set from collective responsibility and common experience to personal choice and desire; from what we owe each other, to what the world owes us.

Perhaps my visceral vexation at those who break restrictions is merely self-righteousness and over-active anxiety, but I hope it is something different, more expectant: a longing to see the new-found solidarity of the early crisis continue well beyond it, and fear that it is already lost. 

Pippa Bailey is the New Statesmans chief sub-editor. 

This article appears in the 25 September 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The autumn of discontent

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