Coronavirus hasn’t gone away. So why are people acting as if it has?

I have a weird feeling of disorientation when I go outside these days. It’s like waking from a very long sleep to find the world irrevocably changed; a trope in science fiction – from Bill Masen in The Day of the Triffids missing the blinding meteor shower and going out into a London transformed, to 28 Days Later.

Except what’s weird is not the London of a few weeks ago, the eerie, empty stage that my husband and I walked onto, with Piccadilly Circus vacant but for the masked queue outside Boots, the famous advertisements all Covid-19-related messages of comfort and strength. No, what’s weird now is that things feel almost back to normal. Shops have opened, the traffic has resumed its flow, people blast music from cars, groups of people sit in parks, sharing crisps. Am I mad, I wonder, to still feel nervous?

The people a few houses down have been having parties in their garden. Meanwhile my dad, in north-west Wales, remains in almost total lockdown. There are the geographical discrepancies, but the other disconnect is psychological. People no longer bother with the 2-metre distance rule. Many aren’t wearing masks in shops. People no longer politely step aside to give one another space on park paths.

There were always people who didn’t observe lockdown, whose way of coping seemed to be denial, or whose perception of risk was different to my own. The strange, Crucible-esque shaming streak that hit the country at one stage seems to have dissipated, thankfully. I made the decision early on not to get het up about other people breaking the rules. Better, I thought, to be able to look back on this, maybe in a few decades’ time, and be able to say that I did my best to protect other people. Better to just privately lose respect for someone, rather than to get on your high horse about it, or try to humiliate them. And anyway, Dominic Cummings put paid to all that. He’s part of the reason why the lockdown has unravelled so dramatically.

What we are left with are people living in two parallel universes. In one, there are people who – knowing that the virus has not gone away – feel gaslit by the fact that things are opening up when there is absolutely no scientific reason for that to be happening.

Because of this, it feels almost as though we are going mad. In fact, the last time I felt this sense of dislocation was because I actually was going mad: I had agoraphobia. At the time, I couldn’t understand how people were still going about their daily lives when the world was such a threatening place. A relative told me that their experience of grief was similarly jarring. They couldn’t process why the world kept on turning when their mother was dead. I suspect it is the people who have lost relatives in this pandemic, and have not been able to grieve them in the usual way, who feel the most gaslit of all.

And then there is the other universe. In that universe, the sun is shining, and the worst is over. It looks nice, this universe. I don’t begrudge these people at all. Maybe they think that the worst really is over, or maybe it is just their way of coping. Maybe they feel less at risk. There have always been those sorts of people who feel like things ultimately will always be OK, as opposed to the catastrophisers among us.

Maybe, like all of us, they are just so sick of it now that they have made a conscious decision to just exhale and shake it off, and try to live. Maybe they have spent this entire time working on the frontline, and have not had the luxury of being able to cocoon themselves away with their families and control their interactions with other people to the same level that some other, more privileged people have, with their takeaways and their internet shopping.

I don’t know how, or when, these two realities will merge. I suspect that the more cautious among us will gradually loosen up in time for a second wave of infection, but even then, I don’t think we will ever return to a full lockdown in England, now that the government has proved itself incapable – and unwilling – to maintain one. I simply felt the need to put in writing that feeling of dislocation that many of us feel, so that if there comes a point in the future when I am asked why we didn’t try to do more to protect people from deaths that were far from inevitable, I can point them to this and say, well, it was a complicated time, and although there were parties, there was also great unease.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist and author

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