Calm down covidiots, it’s nothing personal

Mindless rule-flouting behaviour is the real problem in the pandemic

Photograph: iStock

Photograph: iStock

 

Covidiot or covidiocy? My recent article on people who knowingly flout the safety rules on mask-wearing and social distancing drew an angry or concerned response from some readers.

The word “covidiot” – in use for months and not coined by me – was a big source of anger for some of my critics. I used it to describe people bunching together outside bars or taking the mask off once they got on the bus. The critics saw it as a demeaning word that should not have been used. Some of those annoyed didn’t disagree with my general approach, but were angered by the word.

I was actually using the word to describe a behaviour rather than the essence of a person, so I will concede that “covidiots” was imprecise and that “covidiocy” would have served better. It might still have seemed offensive to those who were offended by it, but at least it would have moved the focus from the person to the behaviour.

It’s interesting, though, that such concern is felt for the feelings of those who blatantly flout the rules.

Was there too much concern, I wonder?

Would better enforcement of the rules have prevented this current lockdown with the harm it will do to people and business?

Better enforcement doesn’t mean making “flouters” stand in the town square with a covidiot placard. It might mean a garda walking through a supermarket twice a day and talking to the “maskless ignoramuses” (to use Kathy Sheridan’s phrase in a recent column) there present.

Or a garda getting on a bus and having a word with the same people.

Even that level of enforcement or persuasion didn’t seem to happen, and look where we are now?

Shame

One thoughtful email was from a person who detected a sense in my writing on this subject that people should be shamed into changing their behaviour (I had suggested that public health messaging should include social disapproval as was done regarding smoking a good many years ago).

Because some people are fearless regarding Covid, social disapproval might not work on them, he suggested. If there are people who are fearless there are also, as my correspondent pointed out, people who are shameless and this approach is doomed to failure.

Well, some are fearless and some are shameless and maybe some are both but the approach, I suggest, would work often enough to contribute to the avoidance of a series of debilitating lockdowns.

I sensed that my correspondent doesn’t want to see a return to old-school Irish shaming and neither do I.

As I wrote in the article, the people whose behaviour I was castigating are not bad people in themselves – it is mindless (at best) behaviour we need to change.

I see a report in the Italian newspaper la Repubblica of research in a hospital there suggesting that those who get Covid despite wearing a mask and social distancing have a lower concentration of the virus, a lower level of illness and better outcomes than those who don’t observe these precautions. Another reason, I think, for being nanny-stateish about the rules.

I am also castigated by my critics on the grounds that I am accredited as a therapist, that I practise mindfulness and that I have written a book about calm.

As a therapist I would not use a word such as covidiot to a client. I would have the respect I mentioned earlier when I said the people concerned are not bad people and I would help them (if it was relevant to our work) to look into what’s behind their choices.

But as a citizen expressing a view in a column I am entitled to express myself robustly within the law. As for mindfulness – mindfulness doesn’t mean you can’t feel astonishment or anger though it means you should know you’re feeling it.

And you can advocate calm and still observe these behaviours with an awareness of their potential for upending lives in many painful ways.

As I said above, it’s the behaviour I criticise and not the person.

Padraig O’Morain (@PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Daily Calm. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email (pomorain@yahoo.com).

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