Connection in a time of COVID

We would like to say thank you. That’s all it says on the business card in the box on the end of the bookshelf in my hallway. It makes me smile as I drop my keys, mask and hand gel on top of it. To be honest, that last is not a sentence I imagined myself writing a year ago, but one unexpected positive of the need to be fully armed is that I lose my keys far less frequently these days. It’s six thirty in the morning. I’m not entirely sure what time the milkman arrives, but he’s always here before I get up. The only time I’ve heard him was the day he dropped the empty bottles in the car park, somewhere around four. I’m pretty sure what he said then woke most of the neighbours too.

Back in the day, everyone had a milkman, and it was part of the milkman’s job to know the latest gossip. He’d arrive on a Friday morning, a leather satchel on his shoulder, pencil behind his ear, and pull out a dog-eared, black ledger, from which he’d magically summon the week’s total. He’d then launch into the latest scandal, while I ferreted for the right change. His knock, one memorable morning, woke the three-month-old puppy, who’d been spark out in front of the Rayburn in the kitchen. As I chatted, a half-dazed fluffball appeared, peed all over my feet and reduced the milkman to helpless laughter. Those were the days.

Now of course, it’s all done online, and I wouldn’t know my milkman if he ran me over in the street. He can bring me organic bananas, non-dairy oat drinks or washing-up liquid in returnable glass bottles if I want, but he no longer brings the gossip. His name’s Richard, I know that much, and in time-honoured tradition we still exchange Christmas cards, mine including a Christmas Box tip, but that’s as far as the connection goes.

My ears look huge when I’m wearing a mask. I catch a glimpse of myself in the bathroom mirror as I wash my hands before putting the milk in the fridge. Small things seem more noticeable in these strange days. That business card thanks me every time I deposit the essentials of minor travel. It must’ve come with something I ordered online, but I can’t remember what. Lately I’ve been ordering far too much stuff. Two suspicious transactions appeared on my bank account on Tuesday, likely a result of reckless internet shopping, so my debit card has been abruptly cancelled. I’ll have a new one in three to five working days, but meanwhile I’m cast adrift. After a long conversation with the bank, I found myself staring out of the window, feeling alone and vulnerable. The only redeeming feature of the previous twenty minutes had been a moment of connection with the woman on the phone.

Good morning, how can I help you? Oh God, I’m sorry, it’s afternoon isn’t it?

How many times have I done that too? A few seconds of shared humanity, before we got down to brass tacks.

After a lifetime spent on buses, I’ve not used public transport since March. This has a lot to do with the woman who coughed up her lungs for twenty minutes on the number seventy-six, a week before the nation went into lockdown. My new-found aversion to buses has given me ample opportunity to observe life on our COVID-era streets. Discarded masks are ubiquitous – I counted four along a twenty-yard stretch near a well-known supermarket the other day. Cyclists with bells are a near-extinct species in most areas, the exception being the motorway underpass round the corner. And younger people – men especially – are more likely than anyone else to barge past without distancing if you’re walking too slowly for their liking.

The etiquette of distancing is interesting. Many people seem unaware that social distancing is the most effective means of controlling COVID. I scuttle along crowded pavements like a demented beetle, skipping in and out of hedges and gutters to avoid people who seem oblivious to my existence. Perhaps my childhood wish for a cloak of invisibility has been granted, and I really can’t be seen once I leave the building. I’ve just passed the entrance to a local nursery when I see a man approaching, with two small children. I step down onto the double yellow line, and realise there’s another young man, also with two toddlers, a few yards behind. The first man moves away from me, smiles and thanks me. There’s a moment of connection, before the second leaves me standing in the gutter without so much as an acknowledgement. I walk on, and find myself wondering how differently these two men’s children will experience the world as they grow up. In these days of COVID-induced fragmentation, connections, however brief, are crucial. Thank you is the difference between a smile and a well of loneliness, and it doesn’t cost a penny.

Confession is good for the soul, and writing a blog is as close as I’ll get to a confessional today, so I’m offering two for the price of one. Not only do I buy far too much stuff, but I also spend way more time than I should on social media. The problem is, I have the heart and stomach of a writer, and that has fascination with people written into the contract in blood. Every nuance of belief and behaviour can be found somewhere on Facebook – my drug of choice – and quite a few amongst the friends I’ve accumulated along the way, so there’s plenty of fuel for conflict. I mean, who knew the nice lady my niece met on a mission trip would turn out to be a fanatical QAnon conspiracy theorist?

The sheer volume of anger on social media can be exhausting. In a world of infinite connection, we seem more disconnected than ever before, and the inscrutable algorithm ensures a rolling feed of negativity, night and day, should you choose to engage. Of course, when you’re online, you can become anyone you want to be, and anonymity emboldens people to do things they’d never dream of if they could look their victims in the eye. After all, who’s to know, when there’s a glass screen, a magic black box, miles of cable and a half a dozen fake profile pictures between you and reality? Only a day or two ago, I had yet another friend request from a man who looked exactly like Simon Cowell. I’ll swear that man has more clones than Dolly the sheep.

In these days of Cummings, Johnson, Trump and COVID, much of the anger is political. Some are angry because governments haven’t done enough to control the virus, others because they’ve done too much. Some are angry with me for criticising governments. Masks get a lot of attention, and I’ll lay my cards on the table, if I can save anyone’s life with a mask, I’ll wear one night and day, regardless of who calls me a sheep. My neighbour’s in the early stages of dementia, and I’m not about to risk adding coronavirus to her family’s problems.

The masks of social media, on the other hand, don’t protect anyone except the wearer. They’re all about the image – oddly often, the image of Simon Cowell. Once the mask is firmly in place, the keyboard warrior strides off into the fantasy world of cyberspace, where lies, insults, and rape or even death threats, can slide off the fingers with impunity.

For all that, when faced with lockdown back in March, one of the very first things I did was contact a wise and wonderful friend, with a view to setting up a Facebook group. Seems I’m hardwired for connection, and when normal communication was threatened, my instinct was to find another way. That group, alongside Messenger, Zoom, FaceTime, WhatsApp and Skype, to name but a few, has become the armoury for a pandemic. In a time when connection has never been more crucial, or under greater threat, I would like to say thank you to everyone I’ve travelled alongside on the road to hope, in a time of COVID.

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