One of my worst failings (as I am constantly telling myself) is my strong critical voice. In my defence, I am as critical of myself as I am of other people, so I know how rubbish it feels to be on the receiving end of relentless negative feedback. I speak from experience when I share my belief that the constant barrage of messaging from Downing Street for us to try harder to follow ‘the rules’ – and the media’s obsession with doom scrolling through our collective failure to send Covid packing – is a lesson in how not to affect a change in public behaviour. Change of slide please.
In my teaching life, I learnt quickly that if you keep a whole class in for a detention on account of just one student failing to complete their work, then you quickly lose the respect of the room. Take heed Boris.
I loved the tale my father used to tell of the Cold North Wind and the Summer Sun: admittedly I have since discovered that Aesop should really take some credit for this fable, but I prefer to believe that my raconteur of a father conjured up this narrative to teach his youngest daughter that projected negative criticism rarely wins a popularity contest. I am sure you know the story – it follows a competition between the North Wind and the Sun to decide which of them is stronger; they challenge each other to make a passing traveller remove his cloak. However hard the North Wind blows, the traveller only wraps his cloak tighter to keep warm, but when the Sun shines, the traveller is only too ready to take his cloak off straight away.
I rest my case.
Probably like you, I find that I feel I am suffering from the cold chill of negative feedback; not only does every headline, TV programme and telephone conversation centre around Jimmy Covid, but each also accuses ALL of us of blatantly flouting Covid regulations. I can feel a little rebellion coming on. I am not thinking of storming Capitol Hill, but I may just remove my mask for a moment, while I counter-argue this charge.
Yes, we know that there have been covidiots packing the walkers’ car park at Pen-Y-Fan and I am sure that there have been a fair few house parties during lockdown, but I still feel we need to recognise the thousands of people just quietly getting on with complying by ‘the rules’ – however confusing these may be.
This week I detect a little shift in the media, an acknowledgment that we are becoming numb to their daily discussion of our failings. I hear a radio request for listeners to ‘shout out’ examples of good graced compliance from the majority of the public who are simply getting on with Covid regulations. Listeners quickly query why on Christmas Day news channels didn’t share photos of families across the country obediently swapping Christmas presents in service station car parks – all standing back from hermetically sealed presents which were then transferred into ongoing cars by drivers wearing festive PPE and trying not to cry in front of the children. All these families obediently resisted the temptation to hug each other and probably then all returned to a turkey of disproportionate size back at home – and perhaps even quarantined the presents they had just collected until they could have a Zoom communal present opening a few days later.
Then there are the families who have not only navigated through the death of a loved one during Lockdown 1, 2 or 3, but have also valiantly abided by ‘the rules’ to give the departed the best send off possible by being creative with technology and sharing the service with an extended congregation united by wifi and love for the departed. When limited to 15 people at a funeral service, the dignity involved in the chosen few walking – socially distanced – to follow the hearse is both striking and humbling. Locally, I have seen strangers, stop and stand in respect by the side of the road as these silent processions pass by. It is a conspiracy of modest and respectful compliance and it bodes well.
Strangely in my small Covid world, I find my 94 year old mum to be the person most likely to flout the regulations. She tells me that she was, ‘a right little tinker at school,’ and that the Government should make the distinction between breaking rules and breaking the law, reasoning, ‘I spent my childhood breaking rules – scrumping, staying out late, not doing homework – but I have never broken the law. Now I just don’t know what the rules are – or if I am in danger of ‘flexing them. I am not worried about me now, but worry that I will cause one of you to break the law if I burst my bubble.’
Mum demonstrates her confusion when I drive her to her vaccination appointment at a local clinic. After shielding for months and being as ‘obedient’ as she feels able, mum is clearly looking forward to this outing, even though I tell her that we won’t be able to pop into her favourite cafe on the way home. On arrival she is disappointed that I can not walk into the building with her, but she is surrounded by volunteers who are respectful and Covid compliant as they guide her in and out of the clinic – which runs like a well oiled senior citizen drive-thru. On the drive home she is not as jubliant as I had anticipated however, saying, ‘The staff were great but I feel we could have been offered a coffee while we were waiting; so many of my friends were in the same waiting room – I haven’t seen them for months; what a wasted opportunity for a get together’.
I remind mum that it is best not to be overly critical and – over a coffee back at home – I get her to join me listing ways in which people should be commended for keeping to the rules while we wait for the vaccine to kick in:
- Homeworkers – thousands of people are just ‘getting on with it’, probably working a longer working day than they ever did in the office and simultaneously trying to wrap themselves around home schooling.
- Pivoters – people who have lost their jobs or been furloughed and are dusting themselves down, learning new skills, pivoting and waiting for the employment market to turn. Those in the fitness industry demonstrate this well – their studios and classes open, closed, open again and outside group exercise and sport off, then on and now off again – look at how these self-employed fitness professionals have adapted their offer to work on-line and how they have turned the heating off, on, and off again (both physically and metaphorically) in their respective studios across the country.
- Other workers – those accused of clogging up the roads rather than working from home, when their employers have declared that they must try to work away from home if possible – and still navigate home schooling from a distance by trusting their children, teachers and technology.
- Students – thousands of young people who must be so tired of being inside and home schooling when their teenage hormones are screaming to be allowed to socialise with their peers. These are young people who are wired to rebel during their teenage years and yet lockdown requires that they comply by working around anxious parents, irritating siblings and dodgy tech without losing their rag…and if they do ‘lose it’ , they have nowhere to flounce off to in order to cool down.
- Shoppers and staff in supermarkets: I have seen nothing but compliance here. Just where are the media finding the mask flouters, the shoppers who spread their germs liberally around the fruit and veg section and the retail thugs who ignore the traffic light system at the main door? All I see is friendliness, humour and support. I have grown to love the staff at the local Tesco who stand out in the cold, clean down the trollies and offer a ‘sploosh’ of hani san and a friendly greeting as you wait for the light to turn from red to green at the door.
- Walkers – people using their daily exercise slot to check in with one other person and knowing how important this social contact is. These are not people driving miles to walk in famous beauty spots, these are people walking from their own front door in all weathers, knowing that social contact and exercise is self-regulation that will be rewarded.
- People who send well-being packages to the strangers, friends or family they just can not get to without tearing up the rule book, knowing that January is always a long month, and that this year it feels even longer and darker.
- Innovators: people who manage to make the rules work by being creative. People who set up zoom living room picnics to join with loved ones enduring chemo treatment; people who photoshop their relatives into group photos on Facebook so that they can all be ‘together’ with their family on a red letter day and people who use social media for the right reasons, offering their expertise and time for free and keeping a weather eye on the community from a social distance.
Mum lies back on her sofa and asks for another coffee before I go. She feels we have managed to reset ourselves by focusing on what is going well right now and, as I can not manage to get the subtitles working on her TV before I leave, she feels she may also do better this week by ignoring the news and avoiding all that ‘telling off’. I know she will miss ‘Pointless’ though, and I feel defeated by my inability to get her TV to comply. I decide to call one of her neighbours who is an IT expert and who I feel sure will be able to talk us through this malfunction. I am not disappointed.
I leave mum in good spirits. ‘I’ll see you again soon love,’ she says, ‘I’ll be needing you to take me to my second vaccine at the clinic and this time I might just sneak in a flask of coffee for my friends.’ Tinker.