It’s a very strange world we live in right now, and one thing that’s becoming clear is that we’re all adapting in different ways to this new stage of the pandemic in the UK. Some of us are letting rip and getting out as much as we possibly can, while for many the opening up of public life increases worry about the spread of Covid-19.
There was a curious sense of comfort when lockdown rules were at their tightest. We knew where everyone stood. We couldn’t do lots of things we wanted to, but there was a sense that we were being kept safe, and that we were all in it together. As many of the guidelines end or relax, the burden of decision has shifted to us as individuals and families, and that’s difficult. For many it is a sweet relief, but for some, including me, it is a bittersweet gift. It’s important to recognise the mental impact of the social distancing measures we have experienced for months. We are each having to retrain ourselves to interact – how should I pass this tea mug over? Should I take food from a shared plate? Is icecream from a van safe to eat?
In our house, we have started inviting family and friends round for careful ‘distanced garden chats’. Last week, when we had said our goodbyes to our visitor, Tiny came inside and pulled the sliding back door shut with an emphatic bang. She then looked at me and asked. “Do I have it, mummy? Do I have virus?” My heart broke as I realised this pandemic has caused her little four year-old brain a whole lot of stress, despite our best attempts to protect her. Tiny’s reaction made me reflect on how seeing people makes me feel now – unbridled joy mixed with an inherent uneasiness about being in close proximity. It’s natural to feel this way having spent the last three months in shielding boot camp – we have learned new ways to interact with people, avoided shops and public places and become expert handwashers. Caution has become instinctive.
A few people have asked me if I’m pleased that shielding is ending. To be honest, it feels like being released into the wild to defend ourselves. The language of ‘shielding’ suggests a sense of protection. This is definitely something I have felt, both from friends and relatives who have supported us to stay home and from the Government and supermarkets, providing practical support where needed. Of course, shielding has to end at some point, but psychologically it does feel like a protective barrier is being removed.
It is naturally more challenging for shielders to accept risk, however small, back into our lives. You can’t unsee the words “clinically extremely vulnerable”; suddenly being told you can go out and see people feels, well, wrong. But I have had to reassess how I see this virus and accept that life must change now. My husband and I have had to take a conscious, rational look at actual risks and not let fear guide our decisions. We have taken a gentle approach in testing what I (and the kids) can deal with. I have also learned that it’s OK to see it differently to others – our situation is different, so our lives and choices will look different for the next few months, or even years. We can be strong and confident in those choices.
For many, the isolation of lockdown has taken a huge toll on their wellbeing and seeing people and going out are so important. When I have found myself disapproving of the way other people are conducting themselves, I have had to remind myself that I do not know their needs or reasons for their actions.
However you’re responding to the loosening of lockdown, my one request is that you don’t lose sight of the most important thing this pandemic has taught us: that we need to look after each other. It’s easy to scorn those who are struggling to step out into the world or to judge people who seem to be breaking the rules that are still there. But we cannot know the unique pressures this pandemic has placed on different people. Talking about it and being honest about where we’re at will help us understand and reconnect with friends and loved ones. By loving and preferring each other we can continue to help each other find that new, delicate balance of caution and freedom that we all need right now.