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The Frustration of Staying Socially Distant as Others Go Back to 'Normal'

I wish I could say I felt hopeful about the future, but this brave new reality in which we’re living makes me despair for the human race. I also wish I could say that without an ounce of melodrama.

I have the vantage point of watching the coronavirus (COVID-19) unfold in my own country of Northern Ireland and in the mainland United Kingdom. We’re beholden to our own socioeconomic factors to COVID-19 response, colored by our government’s ongoing talks to leave the European Union and our place as an isolated nation on the edge of a globally important trade bloc. We’re a small fish trying to assert our bygone dominance over a rather large pond, and our leaders have talked themselves into a corner where we stand to lose everything and gain nothing upon leaving the EU.

So, it’s no wonder that socioeconomic factors are apparently coloring our government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and their need to spirit us out of lockdown and into a reopened economy.

But as I sit here as a depressed, anxious, highly sensitive person just trying to manage my own mental health while the world spirals into yet another pit of hell, the selfishness of society at large makes me wonder what everyone thinks is going on.

Contrary to the behavior of many, I haven’t stopped social distancing since the lockdown began in March 2020. I haven’t seen friends beyond a quick hello from a distance of 12 feet, only then to deliver birthday presents. I’ve been wearing my mask, keeping away from other people and only leaving the house to shop for groceries in quiet, smaller stores, and to exercise via socially distanced walking — no gyms for me, thanks.

This shouldn’t be out of the ordinary, and I’m not looking for praise for doing what I can to protect myself and, more importantly, the vulnerable people in society who could stand to become very, very ill, or actually lose their lives if they catch this virus.

And yet, particularly in recent weeks, I’ve seen people take greater chances with their health than ever before.

Despite contemporary cases still rising, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced in July that England could return “to normality” by Christmas. Following his plan, schools have indeed reopened in early September, sparking dozens of outbreaks across the region which Public Health England apparently finds to be acceptable. It should be noted that Public Health England is being scrapped in favor of a new public health body, led by a controversial and unproven businesswoman with seemingly no experience in public health.

Monday, September 14, sees Boris Johnson’s new “rule of six” measures come into force, making gatherings of more than six people illegal in England with some notable exceptions. Places of worship, gyms and restaurants are exempt, as are schools and workplaces. This makes little sense to me since it is still possible to transmit COVID-19 in these places. Ahead of these new measures, illegal parties took place across the UK this past weekend, with police intervening in some gatherings as large as 70 people. I watched some of my own acquaintances attend parties and gatherings where social distancing was absolutely not followed.

Why does this all matter? As of Monday, September 14, the World Health Organisation (WHO) reports a record daily rise in cases around the world. Closer to home, England’s R number — the number of people each infected person is estimated to go on to infect — could be as high as 1.7 according to a study by researchers at Imperial College London, though the true number is unknown. If the R number falls below 1 and is maintained at that level, the coronavirus spreads only slowly and eventually disappears. The Guardian reports a significantly higher rate of cases among young people. Compared to 19.7 per 100,000 across the general population, the rate for young people stands at 48.1 for 17 to 18 year-olds, 54.5 for 19 to 21-year-olds, and 41.6  for 20 to 29-year-olds. Let’s not forget that a significant number of COVID-19 deaths had no prior underlying health conditions, even among young people.

It’s clear, then, that people still aren’t taking this virus seriously. Perhaps they aren’t entirely to blame, though, given the government’s mixed messaging and our society’s widespread conspiracy theories that the virus is a hoax. Instead, one must wonder if the government’s lax lockdown measures are financially influenced, given our gross national debt and the lingering specter of the last “once-in-a-lifetime” recession. Our government’s concern seemingly lies more in reopening the economy than in the lives of the estimated 67 million people in the United Kingdom.

Beyond the virus’ death rate, the long-term effects of COVID-19 are yet to be determined. However, an estimated 600,000 people have reported symptoms similar to chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis (CFS/ME), including migraine, severe breathlessness, muscle weakness, exhaustion and chest pains. Even once the coronavirus pandemic fades into distant memory, I doubt any of us are going to look back on this and laugh. Instead, even previously healthy people will be feeling the long-term effects of our governments’ negligence.

How are we to move forward? How can we possibly continue the way we have, allowing the R rate to rise, playing games with our health and the health of our most vulnerable citizens, just because we’re all seemingly so desperate to be out of lockdown and back to “normality?” I’m as desperate as the next person — I want to hug my friends again, visit coffee shops, go to the cinema and enjoy my life to its fullest where my mental illness allows, but I’m not about to play fast and loose with the lockdown for a fun night on the town.

I don’t have any answers. I don’t know how we change public messaging around this in order to steer us to a point where we actually care about one another — not if our leaders continue to concern themselves more with financial interests than making this situation work for everybody. In the meantime, I continue to follow our original lockdown measures to the best of my ability and hope that, in time, society will cease its selfishness and begin to care about one another. These are unprecedented times, indeed, but will we look back on these days and be ashamed of how we acted, or will we take pride in the sacrifices we made together for the greater good?

I know which one I’d rather carry with me.

Follow this journey on the author’s blog and on Instagram @mattsloanwrites.

Photo by Anastasiia Chepinska on Unsplash

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