I really don’t want to get Covid. I don’t (knowingly) have any underlying conditions, and I have never been afraid of dying of the virus, but there is so much evidence about its potential medium- and long-term effects, to say nothing of long Covid. I cannot convince myself that getting Covid is a risk worth taking.
In some ways I lead a reasonably normal life. I don’t obsessively follow the news about case numbers and scientific studies. I work in the office some of the time, and I will take public transport. I spend time walking and gardening. I see friends who either feel as I do or are willing to accommodate me. But the mental burden of saying no to social activities because they involve groups of people indoors, being the only person in the room in a mask, and in general of feeling that I am completely at odds with the society in which I live, seems to get greater every day.
In the absence of vaccines that actually block transmission of the virus, I cannot see this ending any time soon. I am regularly struck by waves of misery and loneliness. How do I keep going?
Eleanor says: Like you, I have thought about this a lot. In the early lockdown days I remember people fantasising about the day it would all be over – the vaccine would come out, the lockdowns would lift, there’d be dancing in the street. In hindsight it’s obvious that there would be no one final day: it was going to be a whimper rather than a bang. At different paces people would stop altering their behaviour around the danger, the same way we’ve learned to with car accidents or air pollution or any of the other risks that stalk us daily.
Like you, many people are now left scrupulously wearing masks and wondering why they’re still in touch with things that everybody else seems to have moved past. Not “fear”, as it’s often described, but a considered judgment that it isn’t worth taking the risks that other people seem content with.
You are clear in your letter that this is not a position you want to change. You asked how to stand by those preferences while the world around you doesn’t.
It might sound like a funny analogy, but perhaps it’s useful to think about sexual health. People have all kinds of attitudes towards sexual risks: some people take every precaution they can against the complications from STIs, even years into monogamous relationships. Others are prepared to roll particular dice. It’s hard to say what the one rational level of risk-responsiveness is here – but one thing everyone worth their salt agrees on is that you don’t get to bully people into taking more risks than they want to.
That’s such a stark, clear principle in bed: only jerks think they get to adjudicate other people’s decisions about the risks. So it’s strange that this clarity goes missing for other kinds of communicable disease. Why? Your body is still yours to value and protect, whether it’s from those risks or the ones in the air you breathe.
Perhaps thinking of that analogy could help summon a clear, self-saluting boldness about the decisions you’ve made for your one and only body. These are my choices, this is my health, and that’s the only justification I need to give.
It might help, too, to see your decisions as marks of solidarity with people who do have underlying conditions. Declining indoor invitations and wearing a mask can make you stand out, it’s true – but stand out as what? If you can see these things as badges of consideration for the people most hurt by the pandemic, it might be something you feel happier to be conspicuous for. Like being the only vegetarian at the buffet, or the only person who recycles in the office. When you stand by it, it’s easier to stand out for it.
You aren’t here to gel with the society around you (it’s not like we have a track record of collectively nailing the moral truths). And you’re not here to meet the approval of a stranger on the train. If you can think of these choices as acts of courage that reflect your values, it might be easier to experience them as bravery instead of misery.
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