Corona, Compassion, Consent

In a world where people are grieving the loss of a loved one, some are fighting for their lives on ventilators in hospital, and many are feeling the financial impact on their lives - how harshly do we judge the decisions that people are making to support their physical and mental wellbeing during these unprecedented times? How strongly can we judge those who are craving human interaction to ease their mental strain during a worldwide pandemic? How do we balance this against being considerate of the worries of others, who feel their mental health deteriorating from the constant fear of being exposed to a virus that they have seen claim the lives of people around them?

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Since the emergence of this novel strain of the coronavirus, scientists and medical professionals are still learning about how COVID-19 spreads, how it affects different people, the long-term impact it will have, and what we can do to best protect our health. Unfortunately, the uncertainties around the virus can cause different interpretations of the little information that we do have.

A statement from the World Health Organisation says: There is currently no data available on stability of 2019-nCoV on surfaces. Studies suggest that coronaviruses may persist on surfaces for a few hours or up to several days.This may vary under different conditions (e.g. type of surface, temperature or humidity of the environment).

While most people I know are making efforts to minimise the risk to themselves and others, each person has a different understanding of what that actually looks like in practice. For example, the once simple act of going shopping for groceries has a number of different corona-safe approaches. Do you wear a mask, an eye shield and/or gloves? Do you keep a 2-meter distance from others while walking the aisles? When you bring the shopping home, do you wash your hands before or after putting the groceries away, or both? Do you disinfect the items you bought, or, in one example I’ve heard, do you disinfect them and then put them all in quarantine for 2 days? What is your version of being safe and responsible?

Though within households people are trying to have a unified approach there will never be a complete consensus on what the ‘right thing’ to do is. This is exacerbated by the fact that the science and medical fields are still unsure about the details of the virus and how it reproduces under different circumstances.

Lockdown so far…did you do the ‘right thing’?

When the lockdown was announced in the UK, the rules were fairly simple — stick to the people in your household and don’t go to work unless you are considered an essential worker. The many relationships we have in our lives and the social interactions that we usually juggle were, practically overnight, almost all reduced to a Zoom or phone call. While for some this is bringing some much-needed peace, many are longing for human connection, even more so during these particularly stressful times. Even though the initial lockdown rules were fairly straightforward, I’ve heard plenty examples of people sneaking off to see their partner, friends having discrete hang-outs, and families quietly planning small gatherings. If there’s a rule, there will always be people who are looking to break it, bend it, or at least find a loophole.

While these rule bends are happening, there is usually someone witnessing it, shaking their head at it. Most likely because their interpretation of doing the ‘right thing’, differs from what they have just witnessed. This can even be the case amongst people within the same household. Two parents in the same home who have heard very similar information about the virus, might disagree on what measures to enforce for the protection of their small children. Or a teenager might disagree with his parent on the risk involved in a ‘social distance’ meet-up with his friends, in particular if they are receiving their information from very different news sources.

A month or so ago, I heard a story of a woman who was still regularly seeing her boyfriend while sharing a house with a flatmate. The flatmate completely disagreed with this behaviour. In the couple’s opinion, the risk was minimal since the boyfriend always practiced good hygiene, lived on his own and didn’t see anyone else during this time. However, the flatmate felt that this wasn’t sufficient for her to feel safe. One suggested compromise, to minimise risk, was that the boyfriend would stop coming to the house. Instead the girlfriend would continue to see him by periodically going to stay with him at his place instead. The flatmate felt that this change didn’t minimise the danger to her health enough, because upon returning to the flat there is a risk of the girlfriend bringing the virus into the shared house with her. In the end she was so concerned for her own health that she moved out of the house completely. Since this was during the initial, stricter lockdown we could simply say that the woman was clearly wrong for spending time with her boyfriend without applying ‘social distancing’. Both women had received similar information on the coronavirus from the news and the government, but showed completely different behaviours in response to it. Their beliefs, values and priorities informed how they interpreted the information they had both received, and the subsequent behaviours and actions they then displayed.

People within the same family can easily differ in opinions on how to conduct themselves during the pandemic. However, those living together as a family are much more likely to have some common ground with each other, than individuals who are living together as flatmates. Even if family members have strongly opposing views, they are more likely to make a solid attempt to find ways to compromise with each other until some form of acceptable agreement is found. As flatmates this can often be a different story. Especially in a city like London, where people from all sorts of diverse and wonderful backgrounds are frequently sharing a (very often small) space, not because they want to, but usually because they have to.

Lockdown restrictions are being lifted, yay?

The issues described above will only become more complicated when lockdown rules are loosened up, as they slowly are now in the UK. The clarity of ‘stay home, unless you’re an essential worker’, is being replaced by a more complex and often confusing set of guidelines that rely on individual circumstances, personal judgement and “common sense”. How do we determine what common sense is when my life, values, thought-process and way of coping during these stressful times is likely to be so different from yours? While lockdown felt a bit like life was at a standstill, it could be said that now we are in a transitional time with society slowly trying to adjust to what our new ‘normal’ will look like. Before the guidelines started loosening up, we may have had different views on things like the health dangers of the virus and the spread of it, but at least we had one set of unifying rules. Now, on top of all these different views and interpretations we can hold as humans, we also have been given guidelines that many people have described as being ‘clear as mud’, leaving even more space for varying interpretations and disagreements to arise.

Image on the left is of actor Matt Lucas frowning. Image on the right is Boris Johnson in the middle of speaking.
Matt Lucas in a video that was widely shared, as he parodied Boris Johnson’s speech on 10th May — “So, we are saying don’t go to work, go to work. Don’t take public transport, go to work, don’t go to work. Stay indoors. If you can work from home go to work, don’t go to work, go outside, don’t go outside. And then we will or won’t…something or other.”

Many people are taking the loosened lockdown measures as an opportunity to regain some form of normality by returning to work or seeing loved ones. While others are fearful of the harmful impact that can come from lifting lockdown too soon. On the one hand social media is filled with smiling selfies of people who are seeing their friends again after weeks of being apart. Then on the other hand there are posts from people who are still urging their friends to stay home to avoid a second, more deadly, peak. The lack of clear guidelines and the ambiguity of what we are ‘meant’ to be doing is likely to lead to more polarity as people will silently, as well as openly, judge each other for the choices they are making. In reaction to each other’s actions, it can so easily lead to people becoming more extreme in their own beliefs. Then, as a result, drawing closer to those people who share their views and further away from others who don’t, causing significant shifts in relationships.

While it is easy to judge (we all do it), the truth is that we will never fully know what another person has going on in their lives and how those things influence the lens through which they view life and the subsequent decisions they make for themselves.

What if a man who was feeling stressed working from home, under the new rules decides to go back to work, while living with someone who is stressed and fearful for her health?

Or one flatmate has decided to see her friends who serve as an emotional support system for her, while the other flatmate is worried about the risk that could pose to his health, as he is living with an underlying health condition.

Or a woman who wasn’t able to work from home, for financial reasons wants to go back to work, but has a partner who fears the impact this may have on their child’s health.

In the above examples, who decides whose reasoning is more valid when there are different and possibly conflicting needs and priorities at play? You may read the scenarios above and feel that in each example one person is more in the right than the other. But the judgement you make is based on your own experiences and values, and the way those have come together to form the lens, through which you look at life. The only way these issues can be navigated even somewhat successfully, is the same way we would deal with issues in any well-functioning relationship. With open communication, compassion, acceptance of each other’s differences, and a willingness to compromise when possible.

So if everyone’s just different, now what?

As much as I wish that this post could end with a clear-cut 12 step process to navigating relationships and consent during the coronavirus pandemic. Sadly, there is no easy answer here. In reality, all I can say is this:

  • Be mindful of each other, we are all experiencing this pandemic differently and it’s impacting us all in individual ways.
  • Be kind to each other, it is a stressful time for everyone.
  • Communicate openly with each other, it is the best way to reach a place of empathy, mutual understanding, mutual support and compromise.
  • And please, make an effort to find your way of taking care of yourself -self-care looks different for each of us.

The current pandemic has brought so much heartache and suffering to people. It is strongly impacting our lives now and will continue to do so for a long time to come, most likely in ways that we are yet to discover. During these difficult and unusual times, many people are doing their best to cope with the new uncertainties in life. I hope that we each find ways of doing this while being particularly mindful and considerate of our own mental wellbeing, as this pandemic is putting us all in situations we have never faced before.

Always, but especially now, I believe that taking care of ourselves and being kind to ourselves and the people around us, is something we should practice as often as we wash our hands. Compassion for ourselves and others is crucial to increasing our chances of coming out of this madness as healthy and as happy, as we possibly can.

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What are your thoughts on these topics? Let me know what you think in the comments below!

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Sona Djerrahian

Sona Djerrahian

Charities & Life Coaching & Marketing — sometimes combined, other times separate. Always with people & community at heart.