Voices: Have we become more selfish in a post-Covid world?

·5-min read

While the pandemic and lockdowns were wholeheartedly hated by the vast majority, I would be the first to admit that there were also some positive moments that came out of our enforced confinement of 2020 and 2021.

As a self-employed mother with two small children, I felt included in a way that I hadn’t in a long time. There were Zoom pub quizzes, online panel discussions, and a whole heap of new WhatsApp group chats that allowed me to get my social fix in those dark days.

I felt part of society for the first time in many years. We all agreed that public sector workers and shop staff had a rough deal; we compared sourdough starters, clapped on our doorsteps every Thursday, and started to appreciate the simple pleasures of being healthy, together, and having a new horde of Monstera plants to tend to.

No sooner, it seemed, had Covid-19 become less of a “thing”, the war in Ukraine broke out. Again, we clubbed together to do our bit. We raided our wardrobes for warm clothes, people travelled to the borders to take what supplies they could, and a great many opened their homes, inviting in refugees in their time of need.

Many of us are still clinging to the last vestiges of those silver linings, but I feel like that camaraderie, that unity, that “in this together” spirit has now faded into a distant memory.

Even the sense of “togetherness” seen in the queue to walk past the Queen’s coffin as she lies in state, with stories of sandwich-sharing and budding romances, is bittersweet, coloured by a wider sense that dissenting voices are unwelcome. Think of the increase in racist abuse of Black and Asian people on social media, and the heavy-handed policing of protesters who criticise the monarchy.

I really believed that Covid was a turning point. That we would start to care more about each other, take care of our planet, and support each other’s mental health and boundaries. But I’ve noticed that, as we’ve moved forward, this has started to be replaced with a new sense of selfishness.

At first, I thought it was just not being exposed to people for a long time. That people had always been like that, and I’d just forgotten. But as time has worn on, as strangers have cut me up at junctions and the infighting among once-close groups of friends has escalated, I’ve realised that we are now in a state of collective social burnout.

As society reopened, we saw stories about what others had been up to while the rest of us were determinedly doing the “right thing”. Partygate, dodgy deals, the admitted sexism of the government’s SEISS scheme, and, as ever, the small proportion of people profiteering from a crisis.

And now the rot has really set in, and we are still frightened – locked in a third year of fight or flight mode. We have replaced one life-threatening event, the pandemic, with another – the terrifying reality of a cost of living crisis.

A crisis in which, although we live in one of the richest countries in the world, many of us are now in a position where we don’t know how we’re going to manage. Will we be able to feed our children? Heat our homes? Can we just scrape by? Even with the new prime minister Liz Truss’s plan to cap household energy bills at £2,500, it’s still unclear how the average family – or those who are more vulnerable – will cope.

People are going on strike to argue for a pay increase so that they can just about afford to keep the lights on. People are being forced into debt, are worried about losing their jobs, and are having to take drastic action to try to survive.

We’re all tired, and we just want to go back to how things were. We expected Covid to end, and that we – as a society – would continue on our merry way. But there’s no going back.

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Like other key events in recent history, including 9/11 and the financial crash of 2008, Covid has left us with a different world. We have to work out if we want to continue to be selfless, to think of others – or join the mob mentality and just look after our own. While many would automatically say the former, hardship and fear may influence us to take a more self-serving route. It’s coded into our primal brains to survive, and when it comes to the crunch, the vast majority will save themselves.

Even the Don’t Pay movement that is encouraging people to refuse to pay their energy bills has divided us. There are the people who are doing it on principle, the people who are considering it as their only option, and those who are ignoring it because they don’t want to damage their credit, as who knows what tomorrow holds.

I remember thinking about how terrifying a global pandemic was in March 2020. This unknown, unseen virus threatened to destroy everything that we held dear. But that faceless virus, in hindsight, was a more palatable threat. The selfishness of people across the spectrum of class, wealth and social status now feels starker and more visible than ever.

As a society, we have become more selfish in a post-Covid world, but really, looking at the state of things, who could blame us?