Why we should start talking about coronavirus comfort

A compassionate approach to people’s discomforts now could help keep us safe in this new stage in the pandemic.  

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I have chafed at nothing more in the past year than the use of the word “comfort”. At the end of the first lockdown, it was initially used as a way to think about how to respect other people’s continued pandemic fears and needs as restrictions began to loosen. But gradually, as the summer stretched on, comfort started to be used interchangeably with the idea of being safe: “I feel comfortable at the gym because they sanitise the equipment and everyone distances.” Even if the scientific evidence showed that an activity was risky, if it felt comfortable, a consensus would grow that it was fine.

It was easy to misunderstand how coronavirus spread in the early days of the pandemic. It's still often misunderstood now, as government messaging continues to emphasise hand-washing over information on ventilation and airborne transmission. Our national sense of which activities are safe – of what feels “comfortable” – has long been out of sync with the science. Throughout the pandemic, we have been encouraged to put gut feeling over proven risk. 

This is what I've thought for nearly a year now – cringing at “safety” measures inside pubs and restaurants, like plastic shields between tables or being told to wear a mask only to go to the bathroom. I yearned for the end of guidance dictated by comfort. But when the roadmap out of lockdown in England was announced and we started to get a sense of what our future would look like after 21 June, my view on comfort started to change.

It started when one friend told me in mid-April that the well-known company he worked for – which had loudly proclaimed to employees and the press that it was moving to flexible working – would be forcing full-time employees back into the office for at least three days a week. Another friend told me about her colleagues' ongoing union efforts to combat staff having to return to their windowless basement office in the centre of London five days a week. I started to think about the people I spoke to in the spring who haven’t left the house this year because of their agoraphobia and OCD, who said they wouldn’t feel ready to return to normal life even after having both vaccines, but would be forced back into daily commuting the second the government allowed it. 

Much has been said about the apprehension around returning to normal life. You only need to spend a few minutes online to come across a meme asking how we ever had the energy for our old social lives. We are undoubtedly out of practice at living like we did in 2019, but the conversations usually focus on activities that are a choice. What about the parts of our old lives that we will be forced to return to, despite the real risk that remains, with no other option? 

For some people, this question arose last summer when they were first forced back into the office – albeit in slightly safer-seeming circumstances, when new variants weren’t surging around the country and cases weren’t already spiking, as they have begun to this week. But most of us continued to work from home rather than return to our offices full-time – and if we did the latter, we did so on an optional basis. Now, as the government pushes 21 June as a quasi-end to the pandemic, many companies are failing to consider those who would rather make their own choices about when they return to the workplace. 

Young people are in the worst position of anyone going into a full unlocking. The under-30s are the least likely to have been vaccinated (most have not been offered their first dose yet) and are more likely to be in precarious work, where they don’t have the authority or flexibility to ask to stay at home a little longer. People in these less stable work environments could easily lose their jobs if they ask to work from home, and in a job market where unemployment continues to rise and new roles are scarce, they face pressure to compromise their own safety if it’s what their employer would prefer.

Even for those in stable roles, the risk of being unvaccinated and in an indoor environment for nine hours a day, even distanced and masked, is very real. And though young people are less likely to die of coronavirus, they are still susceptible to other major impacts, like Long Covid. The government plans to have offered all adults a first dose of the vaccine by the end of July, but this still leaves many vulnerable for more than a month after restrictions are lifted. 

And it isn’t just young people who have concerns – many different demographics may be anxious about a forced return to work, including those with health issues. For example, Facebook vice-president Nicola Mendelsohn has begun campaigning for people with blood cancer to be considered as restrictions loosen. People with the disease have been shown in some cases to have no coronavirus antibodies even after having both vaccines, and currently account for one in 20 new Covid-19 hospital admissions. On mental health, too, we have yet to begin addressing the impact that a year of living in fear will have on people who didn’t have symptoms before, let alone those whose pre-existing conditions have been severely exacerbated. 

Many people find themselves at an impasse; society is creeping back to normal, perhaps too soon, and before many are protected, let alone ready to face what they have spent the last year fearing. So while an overemphasis on comfort in some ways hampered efforts to contain coronavirus in 2020, a compassionate approach to people’s anxieties now could help keep many of us safe in this new stage in the pandemic.  

Sarah Manavis is a senior writer at the New StatesmanSign up to her free weekly newsletter the Dress Down for the latest film, TV, art, theatre and book reviews.

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