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Lockdowns have bred selfishness. Now we need the opposite

There are still a lot of people suffering, there are still a lot of people in need, writes Big Issue editor Paul McNamee
Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty has been accosted more than once in public while trying to go about his business. Picture by Pippa Fowles / No 10 Downing Street.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. During the dark days of the first lockdown the initial gnawing fear gave way to an acceptance.

There was a belief that while this was hard, if we get through it, things would be immeasurably better. And besides, isn’t it quiet? Isn’t it nice to go for walks in the unseasonably mild spring sun? Aren’t communities pulling together? Look, LOOK, there are goats ambling through town! When this is done, the future will be rebuilt better.

A week or so ago we saw Nick Watt, a journalist, who had been walking down the street, pursued by an anti-lockdown mob screaming about him being a “traitor,” presumably because they didn’t like him doing his job.

We saw Kim Leadbeater, whose sister, the MP Jo Cox, was murdered by a far-right extremist in her own constituency of Batley and Spen in 2016, chased down the street and heckled in the same constituency as she sought to win the seat. What must have been going through her mind.

We’ve seen two men accost Chris Whitty as he sat on a park bench. Jonathan Van-Tam was targeted recently too.

There is no defence for any of this. But we need to find a way to stop it.

Reports of lockdown rage have been growing almost as long as we’ve had lockdown. Online is awash with tips in dealing with it. It seems to be mostly breathing exercises.

It is possible that lockdowns have rewired everybody badly. Rather than happily plan to seize the day that has come again as lockdown rules ease, we’re short-tempered and anxious to do what we want after being hemmed in so long.

While it feels like it’s the time to kick back and be a little selfish, the opposite is true

That doesn’t explain the haranguing of people on the street by those who believe they have a right to.

Misinformation and opinion masquerading as fact is a deep, deep malignancy online. If you’ve been agreed with and your wild views are supported, vindicated and glorified, you’re going to take them off-screen. You’ll believe you have an urgent right to spill your behaviour from behind a keyboard onto real life.

How do we counter it? By countering it. And calling it out, especially when we come across it online. It will take time. It is deep set.

Beyond it, there are increasing incidences of unacceptable behaviour becoming more normalised. Just a couple of weeks ago the British Retail Consortium warned of a rise in abusive behaviour towards retail staff too. It was on the up before Covid, but something is triggering more pronounced unpleasantness.

There are unquestionably good people around. Food banks are not being staffed by ne’er-do-wells. And the great majority of folk are not out on the street, puffed up and chasing strangers because they believe they have a right to.

The Big Issue and organisations like us were supported through some dark days by very good people like you.

But the reality is that nothing stops now. None of what happened was a one-time deal. If we’re all really to get over this period we need to keep offering a hand up.

There are still a lot of people suffering, there are still a lot of people in need.

That number, whether young carers who are carrying a heavy burden, or those who are staring down the barrel of homelessness, need help now.

While it feels like it’s the time to kick back and be a little selfish, the opposite is true.

Paul McNamee is editor of The Big Issue