It’s uncomfortable to admit when you have changed your mind on something: sometimes it’s easier to pretend that you have always felt that way. Which is why I chafe against myself when I remember how I thought of other people in 2020. Through a lens clouded by panic, I viewed many people as careless and feigning ignorance of the clear risks of a world reopening after months of isolation.
I had reasons to be fearful: my partner was clinically vulnerable, as was his father, who we were quarantining with. I was also scared for myself: I knew healthy people my age who were bedbound by long Covid. I fuelled my anxiety by reading about transmission, learning that unmasked indoor activities were essentially a game of chance. While almost everyone I knew went to restaurants and dinner parties last summer and autumn, I avoided anything more risky than a distanced trip to the park. While I wouldn’t have admitted it at the time, I felt strongly that these people knew what they were doing was unnecessary and superficial – but that they simply didn’t care.
I’ve learned that when it comes to the pandemic, everything seems fine until it isn’t. The last ten days have been an avalanche of new cases: now, every other person I know seems to be getting Covid. It doesn’t help that this is happening in mid-December, in a triggering echo of the devastating third wave that saw so many Christmases cancelled last year. Today, many of us are filled with fear and rage over such an unrelentingly Sisyphean situation, that is so far out of any individual’s control.
As with every other spike in cases, discussions now centre around whether there will be new restrictions and, eventually, another lockdown. And, as with each time before, battlelines are redrawn between those who are for stricter measures, and those who are against.
In this new tradition, the two camps are repeatedly stereotyped. Those in favour of a lockdown are curtain-twitching bores, who get high on policing anyone who wants to enjoy themselves and feel giddy at the prospect of forcing everyone to lead a life as dull as theirs. Those against are hedonistic partiers, young people or deranged anti-vaxxers selfishly pursuing a life that just isn’t possible right now, unwilling to do what is necessary to save lives and return to normality.
These emergent archetypes have dominated our debates about lockdown since the early days of summer 2020. But like all stereotypes, they are reductive and often false. Speak to anyone passionate about this argument, and you will find someone either truly terrified of Covid’s spread (so much so that they’d sacrifice all luxuries) or someone whose pandemic-shattered life is mercifully, finally, being pieced back together. Ungenerous caricatures fail to capture how most people feel: afraid. They demonstrate a lack of empathy characteristic of a time where our capacity for understanding has dried up.
The act of truly empathising with other human beings is – like the pandemic itself – both challenging and often boring. How can you empathise with your opponent on an issue you believe to be a matter of life and death? And why take the time to be empathetic to a point of view you’ve already heard countless times? For many people, with major and obvious caveats aside (frontline workers; the recently bereaved), the pandemic has been largely mundane. It is a lethal combination, difficulty and monotony. At this stage in the pandemic, it may feel impossible to understand those we disagree with on Covid restrictions, especially if we feel they refuse to understand us. Repeating this cycle again and again only exacerbates the issue.
Nearly two years of the same conversation has affected our ability to see the situation clearly. Though enthusiastic advocates of restrictions often recommend a short circuit-breaker lockdown, it has been demonstrated that this would do very little to stop the spread: instead, it would ultimately make a longer one inevitable. We can admit that this could have potentially devastating effects just as life threatening as Covid-19. Equally, saying that we have no personal agency and that all blame lies with the government neglects the individual ways we can make an impact that doesn’t harm our quality of life (which is not mutually exclusive with critiquing the government’s many failures).
We can acknowledge how social interaction can have enormous physical and mental value, and isn’t solely sought out without care for those at risk. And we can recognise too that those desperate for a lockdown are, in many cases, just desperate for safety and lower case numbers, something previous lockdowns have brought.
Instead, out of fear, we often turn our opponents into monsters. This way of thinking feels safer than accepting that things aren’t black and white. It is easier than trying to understand that there may be value in what someone else is saying. It suits us to believe that the motivations of others are sinister, rather than confront the fact that they are nearly identical, at their core, to our own. But the villains we have created are largely fictional. We are all exhausted and frightened and people are pointing pitchforks at exhausted, frightened people.
I still act more carefully than most people I know and will continue to behave with greater caution until data becomes clearer about the Omicron variant and case numbers drop. But I no longer look at those who take more risks than I do as senseless. I have learned to recognise what fear looks like, even when it manifests differently to my own. While it may feel painful to scrounge up whatever empathy we have left when we’re already experiencing so much pain amidst new uncertainty, we cannot hope to have our concerns understood when we fail to give our sincere and genuine understanding to others.