Artillery Row

The happy-clappy compassion mask

Ewa and Mateusz Dymek say cruelty is being masked by compassion

“Kindness” is seemingly everywhere in this pandemic, along with its best friend “Compassion”. On billboards, memes, even in the school newsletter – “Kindness Can’t Be Quarantined”, “Community is Kindness”, “Be Compassionate” – always in happy colours and often personified by a masked face. And if the words aren’t actually on the page, then they are certainly in the subtext – “I wear this to protect you” – with earnest eyes peering out from above a flowery face covering.

But for those monied advocates of lockdown, it is a chance to at last appreciate the joys of Netflix, Ocado and their garden

Big brands piggyback off this. In the pandemic Aldi is “…Here for You” and Coca-Cola hands out coddling Covid-19 advice: “Staying Apart is the Best Way to Stay United”. Everyone is happily #AloneTogether, but everything feels a little too nice and a bit too saccharine. Didn’t ostentatious virtue used to be treated with suspicion? Has the pandemic really been one big compassionate sacrifice or have most people taken on Uber’s pandemic finger-wagging: “…If you can stay home. We can stop this.”? It’s questionable as to whether “we” can stop this, but it’s probably fair to say that “we”, the Uber drivers, will take a far bigger hit by staying at home than “we” the Uber riders or the “we” at Uber HQ.

It seems those driving this new altruism are quite comfortable with the sacrifices they need to make. Yes, there is a certain house-arrest element to the martyrdom, and masking-up is a bit clammy, but almost everywhere you look you are told these noble acts “Save Lives”. They are part of fighting the good fight. No doubt for many staying at home is hard, cramped and maddening, possibly made worse by the fear of losing your job. But for those monied advocates of lockdown, it is a chance to at last appreciate the joys of Netflix, Ocado and their garden.

Doesn’t lockdown also infuse our increasingly safetyist society with a little bit of excitement? During the first days of the pandemic, Contagion became one of the most watched movies and indeed the world outside took on its sci-fi dystopian tinge. N95 mask wearers crossed the street to avoid neighbours in giant visors, makeshift critical care hospitals were flung together in disused buildings, conspiracies of 5G chips to be implanted in ours necks blossomed and the BT Tower beamed down Big Brother-like alerts to instil the fear of Neil Ferguson in you. Life seemed to thrillingly mimic Hollywood. For those imagining themselves as stars in this movie, the existential introspection of yesterday was replaced by something bigger and better: the mission of working towards a greater, collective good. But perhaps the ones pushing the “I do this for you” narrative enjoy the righteousness a little more than warranted. Certainly enough to flatly ignore other places that fared much the same as us (in terms of deaths per capita) but without the fallout of global copycat lockdown politics (Sweden, Finland, Texas, Florida etc.).

Arguments questioning the lockdown seem to never win out against measures causing much suffering because of a deeply felt need to keep “compassionately” saving. Those who die from this disease are older than the average age of death (82) and/or in possession of at least three co-morbidities, yet there were never any real strategies put in place to actually protect these vulnerable groups. Policies never have a sense of proportion when it comes to this disease, despite the recent Downing Street roadmap stating that “like some strains of flu, Covid-19 is a relatively mild illness for much of the population.” That’s not to negate the virus can be serious and the NHS was overwhelmed, but why then were the Nightingale Hospitals abandoned along with sensible calls to make use of student nurses? Might not a more targeted strategy have been worth a try given lockdowns have cost £2.4 billion daily since 23 March 2020?

Now lockdown enthusiasm is turning into vaccine enthusiasm. With all “at risk” groups vaccinated and deaths/cases plummeting, it is hard to know what exactly we are still saving. Optimistically, the vaccine rollout success signifies the end is near. Cynically, it chimes as a continuation of The Compassion Parade, which never seems to take the road back to the “Old Normal”. The vaccine is set to become the next badge of honour. For now, it takes the form of a complimentary pink heart sticker but if things pan out you will be able to proudly flaunt a Covid Status Passport in order to prove you are worthy of being tracked while moving around your own country. (Whether you can travel beyond these borders with any ease is still under discussion. As are further mask wearing, further variants and further lockdowns.)

It’s hard to know if this chic virus etiquette is mainly Happy-Colour-Kindness on steroids, state manufactured fear or just some people’s version of science. However, if those calling for the strict lockdown protocol had to go through the hardships they brought upon others, it’s doubtful they would have taken this path.

Just like the Uber drivers, children were sacrificed so those in charge could showcase their sense of duty and care

Somewhere in each person’s conscience exists a long list of undeserving victims. Everyone is familiar with stories of decimated livelihoods, the vulnerable entrapped with their abusers, the 4.7 million condemned to wait for medical treatment, and global poverty rising for the first time in 20 years. Then there are the children, who went through senseless mask wearing, constant testing and a year of lost education. Just like the Uber drivers, they were sacrificed so those in charge could showcase their sense of duty and care. The needs of the adults were put before theirs.

Cruelty is being masked by compassion. “We” are happily ruining lives and society for a need to seem nice and be liked. In a country where atheism is growing and church masses are being policed, the NHS is mooted as our new religion. This idea is more palatable than the thought of our kindness being a lie driven by fear, vanity and narcissism. We fancy ourselves Jesus-like, filled with grace and divinity but our actions are more akin to a Judas kiss, pretending fraternity so others can bear the burden. When we eventually reach the “New Normal” we might finally return to introspection. But will it be sufficiently honest to admit our compassion could only ever stretch far enough to make ourselves feel good?

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