No question about it: when it comes to coronavirus, we must comply with the guidance

'Personally, I relish the freedom to make decisions myself, but we are in the midst of a life-threatening situation'

August 20, 2020 14:38

My Husband, Larry, is naturally non-compliant. Years ago, he was stopped by the police after turning right out of a side-road, ignoring the “mandatory left” sign. He is also truthful, however, so instead of saying, “Gosh, I’m so sorry — I didn’t see the sign”, he said: “But I do this every morning!” He had decided the mandatory left sign was stupid and didn’t apply to him, so long as he was careful about turning right safely. To a greater or lesser degree, we all bend the rules in certain situations, telling ourselves: “The rule doesn’t make sense”, “You used to be able to do it and it was fine” or — especially popular with MPs — “I didn’t think I’d get caught”.

The other day, I watched a news clip from South Korea about how they’re handling coronavirus on beaches there. You can pre-book a distanced spot on the beach online. A website shows real-time crowding on beaches and directs people to those that are less busy. Beaches are fenced and, at the entrances, everyone has their temperature checked and supplies their name and phone number — in the event of an outbreak, everyone can be contacted easily. Masks are mandatory. Staff patrol the beach to monitor mask-wearing and distancing. It looked calm and orderly.

Contrast that with scenes here of unmanageable crowds on our beaches, especially in Bournemouth and Brighton. If our beaches were fenced off, wouldn’t people storm the barricades rather than queuing patiently to have their temperature checked? Can you picture Brits wearing masks while sun-bathing (think of the awful tan marks on your face for a start)?

If you look at how the pandemic is being handled in different countries, you can see two key issues: 1) the rules laid down by the government, and 2) the level of compliance. Some countries that have set more rigid lockdowns have a culture of compliance, whether due to a fear of punishment or censure, or to a more widespread acceptance of the notion of collective responsibility, that we must all work together for the common good.

We British are a mongrelly bunch — invaded, changed, developed and enriched over thousands of years by influxes from all over the world. As a descendant, on one side, of the invading hordes myself, my view of this is mostly positive. British culture, music, food, fashion is wonderfully diverse. But we are annoyingly unpredictable; from the government’s point of view, it must be nearly impossible to gauge our compliance to any directive. We may be law-abiding on the whole, but we have a strong tradition of irreverence, especially when it comes to lampooning our leaders.

There are intriguing parallels in Judaism. Perhaps more than any other faith, Judaism is the religion of debate, of questioning. Jews engage with religion by dissecting it, analysing it, delving into it with rigour. And yet, for Orthodox Jews, compliance is the foundation of everyday life. There is a lot of emphasis on following the rules. At times, rules offer not just stability, order, community cohesion but also comfort. Although I’m not an observant Jew at all, I do find solace in numerous traditions and customs, even if I can’t always anatomise why that is. But I like to see a reason for something, even if symbolic; that might be why I relish many traditions relating to food, such as eating round foods at Rosh Hashanah to symbolise the circularity of the year, but can’t get on board with, say, not turning on lights on Shabbat. How is flicking a switch “work” just because it relates to power and light? It’s not the same as going out to chop logs for a fire. Or, rather, it’s not the same to me. Years ago, when our son was a baby, a United friend was talking about the proposed eruv locally. She was relieved because: “It takes away the dilemma of having to make a decision about whether I can wheel Joshy to the park in the buggy.”

Personally, I relish the freedom to make decisions myself. I am law-abiding, but questioning. But we are in the midst of a life-threatening situation. No matter how critical we might be as individuals of the Government or specific rules relating to the pandemic, we have to accept that now is not the time for maverick behaviour. It’s not about blind compliance but grown-up decision-making. We need to put our argumentative heritage to one side for a while and choose to comply not as a matter of blind faith but of collective responsibility. So for once, I will reiterate the Government’s reminder:

HANDS: Wash your hands before going out and as soon as you come in.

FACE: Wear a face-covering in enclosed spaces. (Not beneath your nose! Not as a chin-guard!)

SPACE: Observe social distancing whenever possible. (Yes – even you!)

Claire Calman’s fifth novel, Growing Up for Beginners, is out now. @clairecalman

August 20, 2020 14:38

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