It’s hard to pinpoint why the first Covid-19 lockdown was so successful. Care, unity and fear all played their part. But another factor we don’t often talk about is that we were using a mass coping mechanism. Collectively, the nation tried not to think too hard about what was happening. We had our lives stripped away overnight and dealt with it by telling ourselves this would not last more than a few months, or that another wave, even several waves, would not follow. We gritted our teeth and pretended this new reality was fine, largely because we forced ourselves to believe that it would be temporary.
So after a summer of quasi-normality, news of November’s lockdown, following weeks of creeping restrictions, triggered the reality of the pandemic to set in. It wouldn’t be a case of dwindling infection rates until the virus disappeared altogether; it would be a case of more lockdowns, only this time in the dead of winter. Understandably, this realisation caused a surge in anxiety, with many people feeling the worst they’ve felt since March. Many of them started to go online to express fears and frustrations about being put through it all again.
Since then, a new trend has emerged: extreme backlash against a particular type of complaint – typically from young people, saying they miss their “old lives”, their nights out, their fulfilling time with friends. Anything that could be seen as hedonistic (partying, drinking, sleeping with acquaintances or strangers) is immediately met with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of comments from people policing the poster’s language, telling them they are part of what caused the second wave. Honesty – that lockdown is mind-numbing and a year of social deprivation can be soul-destroying – is met with the message that they are the problem, simply for complaining.
This backlash is reserved for those whose needs are deemed less worthy. A single mother, home-schooling and working, who laments this terrible situation is viewed as a victim; a 20-something who misses nightlife is whinging, out of touch with reality, perhaps even selfish. Even if they have complied with every single restriction since the beginning of the pandemic, they will be branded a rule-breaker regardless, and accused of encouraging others to break the rules. The finger will be pointed: do they really think they have a right to complain when others are “truly suffering” in this pandemic?
I have no doubt that many of those enraged by these complaints feel they have good reason to call users out; they are concerned about the spread of the virus, fearful that people are becoming less compliant and are panicked. But rather than directing their anger at those who have control (the government, for example) or even at individuals who have shamelessly and openly broken lockdown rules (such as influencers jetting off to Dubai), they lash out at people who are struggling and, ultimately, just looking for empathy, using social media as a release.
[Read more: Why the current lockdown is having an extreme effect on mental health]
Policing strangers online may feel like a delivery of justice, but it is in reality a way of doling out punishments for crimes that are not real, only perceived. Users may believe that by attacking those complaining they are preventing some outburst of mass rule-breaking; but, really, they’re making someone’s already bleak lockdown experience bleaker still. They are not protectors, they are hall monitors.
What is difficult to grasp is that lockdown might be less brutal for those with a specific type of lifestyle: cohabiting couples with plenty of space, plenty of money, whose days were already filled with wholesome walks and watching Netflix before the pandemic struck. Lockdown can be hard no matter what your situation is, but we should not pretend that everyone has been affected in the same way, nor that people accustomed to a busy social schedule, particularly those living in small flats in urban areas, are not missing out. Just because one lifestyle is seen as more virtuous and socially acceptable doesn’t mean the other is unworthy. Deeming complaints about missing social lives and parties as frivolous is a form of modern puritanism that fails to account for the loss that has occurred across the board and just how radically life has changed.
We need to accept that people are smarter than we (and the government) give them credit for. They know this pandemic will only end by staying at home until enough of us are vaccinated. Seeing someone complain on Twitter will not suddenly nudge others into behaving recklessly, and does not deserve extreme public scolding.
“Pulling together” in the first lockdown meant dealing with shock, motivating ourselves through a common cause and refusing en masse to acknowledge just how terrifying and difficult everything was and would be. Now, in this third lockdown, we can find unity in collective moaning – missing the lives we could have been living right now had this pandemic been handled differently.
Eventually, clubbing and partying will resume, and those who would rather maintain a lifestyle similar to the one they adopted in lockdown will still have the freedom to do so. Policing the yearning to return to our previous lives achieves nothing; it only fractures ourselves as a collective, and heaps yet more stress and despair on to those already suffering. We should be allowed to express grief at a situation that is agonising. Complaint isn’t failure to comply; it is honesty in the face of our reality.