There follows a guest post by a Daily Sceptic reader, who wishes to remain anonymous, on the anger that led him to stop wearing a mask – but the apathetic resignation to the ubiquitous Covid theatre that led him to acquiesce to a pointless Perspex screen.
Cast your mind back to the distant past. Do you recall when the Government postponed the so-called June 21st 2021 ‘Freedom Day’ by a month? (You remember: the ‘irreversible terminus’ of the ‘road map’!) Well, I’d been seething for a while, but when that happened I really was as mad as hell and finally decided not to take it anymore. My protest was rather timid, but it felt like a big step at the time: I resolved I would no longer ‘mask up’ (there must be some strong contenders but has a more loathsome phrase entered the language in the Covid era?) as an outward and visible sign of my inward opposition to the nonsensical tyranny that had taken control of our country. (Musings on the travails of my conscience at this time were kindly published by the Daily Sceptic.)
I confess that I was, in that long-distant summer, a little nervous upon entering the supermarket and getting on a train for the first couple of times. But it very quickly came to feel completely unremarkable – and highly liberating. Somewhat to my surprise, I also found that nobody challenged me. Not a single person. I had no difficult conversations or explosive confrontations; I didn’t need to enter into heated debates about exemptions or human rights. I maybe received the odd death-glare from my fellow-citizens, but with half of their face obscured, how can you really tell?
I was an outlaw for a month, until July 19th 2021, from when nobody was obliged to wear a mask in shops or on public transport and the law was finally on my side. There remained ‘guidance’ to the effect that wearing masks in crowded places was recommended, but with laughable optimism I assumed that this guidance would be generally disregarded. I strode into my local Co-op on July 19th, fully expecting to see a sea of cheerful bare faces. Why would anyone voluntarily submit to this dehumanising and degrading imposition? It was the middle of summer; all the metrics that apparently measured the progress of the (increasingly questionably named) pandemic were gently bumping along at the bottom of a line graph; surely nobody would continue to choose to put a mask on their face to go shopping?
But no: in shops and on buses the masked-up still remained a clear majority. I found this disconcerting. It started to dawn on me that, deep down, maybe people actually liked wearing them, and that there was perhaps more going on here – psychologically, politically, sociologically – than simply staying safe.
As the year progressed, however, the ratio of masked to unmasked started to shift somewhat closer to sanity. When I took my son from our small North West town into Manchester in early December, the train there and back was very crowded with Christmas shoppers and there was hardly a mask in sight. We had to stand for much of the journey, in close proximity to fellow human beings, and we struck up friendly conversations with strangers by exhaling air from our mouths in the traditional fashion, unencumbered by cloth barriers. It felt good. Natural. Normal. I really started to think that the Covid mania was pretty much coming to an end and that the spell had been broken, like that bit in The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe when the snow starts melting and the White Witch can do nothing about it apart from stamp her feet and shout at her dwarf.
But days later the latest scare campaign was launched. A new ‘variant of concern’, originating in South Africa, was detected. I watched, deflated and astonished, as the sickeningly familiar apparatus of fear was wheeled out again: the portentous Greek code name (the Omicron Variant; it sounded comically like a 1970s airport thriller by Frederick Forsyth but apparently we were supposed to take it seriously) the shrill headlines, the apocalyptic models (large numbers of people dying by… some point in the near future… probably…), the grave press conferences. Come on! Surely, I thought, people aren’t going to go along with it this time! The facts were so unpersuasive – South African doctors were telling us from the outset that this variant was essentially a cold. Surely the mutation of the virus into something endemic and eminently manageable was a cause for celebration, not blind panic?
Of course not. The majority seemed to lap it all up with resigned fatalism and even a strange masochistic delight. The masks suddenly started to proliferate in greater numbers. I started to spot far greater numbers of the weird sub-group of masked people who wander around outside and alone, like confused escapees from an institution. I call these people “Ernies”, after the character in the film K-Pax who wears a mask all day long because he is, you know, a mentally ill hypochondriac. You may recall that at the end of the film, Ernie takes his mask off and decides to henceforth live his life confidently and joyfully, at last recognising that a life spent obsessively fearing death is a life wasted. What a strange message from a galaxy far, far away!
Before long the Government’s so-called ‘Plan B’ was invoked. As well as introducing a reprehensible system of health apartheid by mandating vaccine passports, this step involved mandating the wearing of masks in shops and on public transport. In January the Government then went further by forcing all secondary school children to cover their faces throughout the school day. As I type these words I still cannot quite believe that this is really taking place in my country, and that many teachers and parents are shamefully supporting this cruel, stupid, abusive policy.
I was still mad as hell, far madder actually, and so despite the return of the legal mandate I certainly wasn’t going to back down now. I screwed my courage to the thingummy and continued to go abroad in a state of brazen masklessness. And with much the same consequences as before: that is, none whatsoever. So far a grand total of one person has challenged me; a bus-driver who asked me, rather half-heartedly, whether I had a mask. I said that I didn’t and I sat down, which proved to be the end of the matter. I was disappointed to see, again, such high levels of compliance, but it is at least reassuring to observe a smattering of fellow refuseniks abroad. I find the staff in shops to be, if anything, more friendly towards me than usual. Perhaps many of them are sick of wearing masks themselves and enjoy interacting with someone whose face they can see and whose voice they can hear clearly. Staff at train stations and on the tube, I have noticed, very often don’t wear masks themselves, and do not seem at all interested in enforcing the mandate.
It’s a strange time – things are, perhaps, drifting back in the general direction of what we might just about call normalcy, but the vestigial traces of Covid mania are proving stubbornly slow to disappear. This gives almost every routine daily interaction a slightly surreal, irrational quality. I will try to illustrate what I mean with a brief anecdote.
This Saturday morning I went to our local butchers. Most people in the queue were wearing masks; I and the lady behind me were not. The butchers were not wearing masks themselves and the man who served me was courteous and friendly and did not remark at all upon my bare face. “See you soon, sir!” he called as I left the shop.
As I was walking home I was caught in a sudden heavy downpour of rain just as I was passing a small cafe. On a whim I decided to take refuge there for 20 minutes or so in the hope that the rain would abate.
It was a smart sort of cafe, quite small, with maybe eight tables arranged closely to one another. It was busy. Most of the tables were full, and a couple had reservation signs. A waitress approached, maskless, smiling. I explained that I just wanted a cup of coffee, but said that I could see that they were busy. A man sitting at the table right by the door doing a crossword and drinking tea said that I was welcome to sit at his table, since he was on his own at a table for four. I thanked him and sat down.
All perfectly normal, so far.
The waitress went away, returning immediately with a surprising object: a small portable Perspex screen, maybe half a metre square, that she proceeded to place upon the table. Given that me and the gentleman with the crossword were on the same side of the table, this screen didn’t even sit in our line of sight, so any hopes that it would be able to deflect the potentially deadly microscopic virus particles passing between us seemed especially optimistic. “Just going to pop this here… let me know if you don’t need it,” said the waitress. My companion was engrossed in his crossword. I ordered a cup of coffee.
Waiting for my drink, I wondered what a visitor from the distant past – February 2020, say – would have made of this little screen. I then started to notice other little things that a time-traveller would have found odd about the café. Firstly, she may have noticed that by the door was a QR code and a notice stating that it was a legal requirement for visitors to ‘check in’ using this code as part of a Government programme called ‘Track and Trace’. Such a notice would undoubtedly have sent a frisson of horror down her spine. What dystopian hell is this?
She would also have noticed, however, that absolutely nobody entering the café paid any attention to this sign or the code. Was the sign out of date? Was it being routinely disobeyed in a quiet act of civil disobedience? Was it actually some sort of elaborate prank – or an art installation, perhaps? It occurred to me – having never downloaded this app myself, and having rather lost track of the myriad restrictions that have been brought in, rescinded, and reintroduced in recent months – that I didn’t have a clue whether checking in to cafés is still a legal requirement. And if it isn’t, why are the signs still everywhere? When if ever, will they be removed?
The other thing that might have baffled and dismayed a visitor from the past was the peculiar ritual conducted by every single customer upon entering the café. They all walked in wearing face masks. Following a muffled conversation with the waitress, they would then make their way to a table and only upon sitting down would they finally remove these masks.
How would this weird phenomenon be explained to a bemused time-traveller?
“Well, there’s this virus going around, and they think that masks might reduce your chances of getting it, or at least passing it on, so it’s become a courteous custom to wear them in order to reduce the spread of the disease.”
“Yes, but… they only wear the masks for half a minute and then spend half an hour sitting in a small room in close proximity to 20 other people. Is this a virus that can somehow only infect those who are standing up? If they are genuinely concerned that they might have this dreadful virus then why not just have their breakfast at home? And none of them actually look very fearful. This really isn’t how I imagined people would behave in a deadly global pandemic – I’ve seen Contagion and I don’t remember the scene where everyone went out and ordered avocado on toast.”
And that’s the truly strange thing right now – none of them look fearful. We are still going through the motions with the masks and the tests and all the rest of it, but as far as I can tell very few people are actually in the least bit concerned about Covid itself. Every second conversation you overhear is about some friend or family member who, despite being ‘triple jabbed’ and testing themselves daily and dutifully wearing their mask has managed to catch Covid and is currently stuck at home watching Netflix. But these conversations are all completely matter of fact, even rather jocular; none of the people being talked about seem to have more than a bad head cold. There is a total absence of the fear of the virus that was evident in March and April 2020. The Covid rituals have become entrenched; a self-perpetuating practice, conducted for its own sake, and uprooted from any realistic connection to an actual threat.
Whatever their private opinions may be, few people I encounter appear to be openly questioning why we are still acting in this extraordinary way. Nor are they challenging the removal of the civil liberties and the jobs of low-risk people who choose not to be given a vaccine that is manifestly ineffective against infection with the dominant variant of the virus. Nor are they disputing whether perfectly healthy people should be testing themselves every day, at eye-watering public expense, to determine whether they are ill without knowing it. Okay, I have encountered one or two friends who are now voicing these sorts of radical views, but it is still somehow not the done thing in bien pensant circles to speak out against the dominant narrative. It’s embarrassing and somehow ill-mannered to do so, and any opposition is tentative and very carefully framed indeed – “I’m not a Trump-supporting conspiracy theorist anti-vaxxer but I’m just a teeny bit unsure about this forcing children to wear masks business…” In general, most people are still dutifully – even enthusiastically – going along with the Covid theatre of the absurd.
I mused on all of this as I walked back home from the café on Saturday, the rain having stopped, and I experienced and rather enjoyed the nasty little glow of outrage and smug self-righteousness that is my chief consolation when contemplating our current predicament. They’ve all gone mad, I tell myself, but at least good old me can see through the insanity.
But then it occurred to me that this wasn’t entirely true. I too had played along with the rules of this Mad Hatter’s tea party. When the waitress had placed down that Perspex barrier, she had clearly stated that we should inform her if we didn’t need it. I should at this point have politely asked her to take it away. The man with the crossword would probably have raised no objections, since he was the one who had invited me to sit down in the first place. I very much doubt the waitress cared one way or the other.
So why had I said nothing? Oh, for an easy life, I suppose. Right then and there, wiping the rain from my glasses and deciding which coffee to order, objecting to the screen simply hadn’t seemed worth the bother. But by letting the screen remain in place, I had been guilty of a small but nonetheless significant act of apathy and cowardice. It may not have felt like a big thing, and in a way it wasn’t, but it’s the accumulation and the acceptance of so many of these little things that has created the bizarre world we now live in.
I may well be wrong – my hopes and predictions have been dashed many times over the last 18 months – but it does feel as if all of this is, maybe, finally, just about starting to wind down in the U.K. The current restrictions are due to expire on January 26th. Some of them will, it seems at this point, probably be rescinded. But others may well remain. And for how long? One final push to get us through the winter… better safe than sorry… it really is the irreversible terminus this time! There is a real risk that some of the props and routines of the Covid theatre will be with us for years, if not forever. So now is not the time for complacency. We need to resist all of them, even the small ones. There must be a bonfire of the masks. And of the Perspex screens as well.