On Monday, most coronavirus restrictions were dropped in England in what the press, and many in government, heralded as “Freedom Day”. It comes as case numbers climb ever higher and with predictions that we could hit 100,000 a day very soon. But here in London most people seem to be happy with the move, judging by the busy streets, packed cafés and almost-bustling shops. Yet the unwinding, the return to “normal”, also comes with caveats, both official and self-imposed. Public transport, Uber and hospitals have all said that masks must stay on faces. And even in settings where they are no longer legally required (shops, for example) they have not been totally abandoned. They are seen by many as a simple courtesy, a way of nodding to a common good. They will remain for a long time.
But is this commitment also an indication that we no longer have our old appetite for risk? If the government says that we can abandon our masks, why don’t we? It’s hard to know precisely what’s happening just yet. People, for example, say that the young are already back to their old ways but I don’t think you can guess who has been dented or changed by the past months just by knowing when they were born. On the London Underground, the mask refuseniks are a disparate bunch: a middle-aged man in a pinstriped suit, two men in decorator’s overalls, a young woman – although her boyfriend is masked. And is this group mask-free because they have done any kind of mental risk assessment? A neighbour says that his girlfriend avoids putting one on only because it smears her make-up.
But there is a nervousness at play. The way that the travel rules have chopped and changed has dented people’s attempts to be mobile. The complexities of the testing regime for foreign travel have not helped either. People have become wary that until the plane takes off it can all go to pot.
I also feel it. When plans are made, I dampen excitement, aware of how many have frayed at the last minute in recent months. I pack bags not entirely convinced that they will be going anywhere. I make dinner plans knowing that a ping from the coronavirus-tracing app might scupper everything. Perhaps it’s not that we have become risk-averse but rather that we have become disappointment-aware. Acknowledging that “this might not happen” has become an insurance policy to get us past any feelings of disappointment.
We will all look back at some point and see more clearly how the pandemic changed us. Because even for those who were never sick, never lost anyone and kept their jobs, it has shaped us all. Just as we cannot see how subtly the sun hitting our skin ages us, we have often failed to notice the subtler ways that the pandemic has touched our lives. Even the shruggers, the maskless young woman, the denier – it’s affected everyone. But, once you know this, you can take the odd cancelled event, the pings, the forms and the tests in your stride, and face risk again with a seasoned countenance. In the end, we will remember that it can be oddly easier to turn to face a modicum of danger than bed down with endless disappointments.