Culture has certainly shifted since the Coronavirus crisis: we’re swapping business suits for joggers, three meals a day has turned into six….. And baking sourdough and banana bread is the latest Instagram trend. 

But what’s also become the new normal is the hostility that can sometimes present itself in the mundane moments. Borne from this unprecedented time, I’ve noticed glimpses of the judgement that we place on each other. Whether it’s through the language we use in everyday conversations and on social media, or the looks we give to strangers whose personal situations we cannot comprehend in a fleeting moment, but seem to disregard in our judgemental stares.

And no, I’m not referring to the latest Dominic Cummings controversy that’s hit the Government in recent days. Although it has got me thinking about the wafer-thin line that rests between holding public figures to account and publicly shaming someone.

The climate of fear can lead to passive aggressive behaviour in supermarkets
Photo by Philafrenzy, Creative Commons

As a freelance journalist who works in broadcast, I am classed as a key worker, and there are aspects of the job I simply cannot do at home. I feel lucky to work in a supportive environment (with appropriate safety measures in place) where I am still able to cling to a sense of normality at a time of international crisis. I am acutely aware that many do not have this luxury. So as I walked into work on an empty pavement at the crack of dawn, feeling thankful and optimistic, I saw a jogger ahead running towards me. I had become accustomed to not seeing anyone on my walks into work so I was pleasantly surprised to see another face on my journey. 

But, as the jogger approached, she abruptly pointed her arm and, with a stern glare, bellowed, “Move!” Then a pause as I gawped, followed by another exclamation, “Over on the other side. Over! Over!” in a way that was not only incredibly loud for that time of the morning, but had an air of entitlement, as though I was not aware of the current crisis. But I had been at least two metres apart. Had I moved any further I would be walking on the motorway and, while traffic is considerably quieter, I don’t wish to take my chances for a jogger who was passing me for all of three seconds.

The encounter initially soured my mood; it had taken away the hopefulness I had been feeling that morning – something that I believe is so important to maintain during times of crisis. It also reminded me of the importance of how we treat one another, and how we approach conversations when addressing a person’s behaviour which we believe is cause for concern. 

However, as I reflected further, I concluded that the cause of her behaviour was ultimately rooted in fear, and while the jogger failed to engage with my perspective, perhaps I failed to empathise. She could live in an area where people aren’t practising social distancing in the way she feels is safe, or maybe they aren’t practising it at all. In which case, she was not calling me out to shame me; like many of us, the woman was scared. 

Tensions between joggers and pedestrians trying to maintain social distancing have become commonplace.

I think a lot of our subtle shaming behaviours and judgements are rooted in the fear of the unknown. While this is understandable, at times like this I wonder: is this helpful?

I’ve noticed it at supermarkets as well. People make a point of stopping at certain places in the aisle, almost passive aggressively, as though they are trying to communicate their fear and frustration telepathically. These are fair and reasonable worries. But we are all capable of discussing it in a way that is compassionate and respectful – no matter how challenging the circumstances. Because right now, when everything else is absent, all we have is each other and the human spirit.

I’m certainly not turning a blind eye to the way communities across the UK have rallied together to support one another, whether that’s through distributing free care packages for the elderly and vulnerable, or through the weekly applause for our heroic NHS and social care workers.

But the small, unassuming moments count just as much the well-known, scheduled ones. It’s been a difficult time for us all but a particularly unthinkable and tragic time for many. Unity, kindness and empathy is needed now more than ever before. We walk on the same roads, shop in the same supermarkets and we fight our most challenging fight together. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that this is not a competition between each other- it’s between the disease and all of us. We must work as one in order to make progress in the days, weeks and months that await us.

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