Reflections after a year as a volunteer in pandemic-hit Britain…


A US Centers for Disease Control computer rendering of Covid-19


“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”
– George Orwell

Sunday, April 11 marked one year of constant volunteering on my part. First, with the Council’s community hub, then with the Council and NHS’s Project Hope for medical staff, and finally, now, with vaccination clinics all around the area.

April 11 also marked an apparent change of mood among many of the people I deal with as a volunteer.

All along, in each of my three volunteer roles, I have found the people I served and the people I served alongside, overwhelmingly appreciative, kind and good natured. Everyone was willing to wait – if there had to be a wait for something – and everyone was understanding about glitches. In the throes of a global pandemic, people just seemed happy to see each other, and they smiled – with their eyes – above their masks. There was the occasional grumpy sort, of course, but mostly, the first year of the pandemic seemed to have brought forth an outpouring of graciousness. People seemed to be grateful for the snatched chance of human contact, care and consideration, and everyone seemed anxious to give back.

That seemed to suggest we were on the cusp of a new social contract, something Minouche Shafik, the director of the London School of Economics, has spoken about.

Then came Sunday, April 11, 2021. It seemed a turning point. For the first time ever, we volunteers were told off (and quite angrily too) by some of the people scheduled for vaccination at the clinic. True, three irate people out of 50 isn’t very many but it was still a change from the genial tone of past exchanges with members of the public.

I pondered why some people seemed more unforgiving, even meaner than before. Could it be, I asked my fellow volunteer, that they were less scared of getting covid now that the vaccination drive was proceeding apace? Could it be that England’s limited reopening from April 12 was a spur to a more heedless way of thinking?

For a whole year, people had clutched at any engagement, savouring the pleasure of a smile, a kind word, a convivial conversation with strangers. The drought of human contact had led to fear there would be a widespread famine in terms of engagement. What if life never went back to the pre-pandemic normal? What if lockdowns would be a way of life long into the future?

But now, the mood is lightening. There is to be a limited reopening. There are growing numbers of vaccinated people – nearly half of Britons have received one dose.

Could the lightening have conversely caused some people’s darker instincts to come to the fore?

In her book ‘What we owe each other’, Ms Shafik has spoken about “living in ‘you’re on your own’ societies, a situation which gets translated into the politics of anger”. The scariness of the pandemic initially led to an outbreak of kindness and gentleness. But with the fear abating, people may be going back to the regrettable habits of old.

I’m not sure that’s the case but it’s the only reason I can find for why, a whole year after I started volunteering, I’m finally coming up against flashes of rudeness and irritability.

If so, it is a grim commentary on human nature.