Coronavirus Is the New Brexit

A new report shows that tension between mask wearers and non-mask wearers is more extreme than Vote Leave versus Remain.
October 1, 2020, 5:03pm
How Coronavirus Caused a Bigger Divide Than Brexit
Photo: Alamy. Composite: VICE staff. 

When the UK’s nationwide lockdown was announced on the 23rd of March, Josh*, 22, was worried – but he knew what he had to do. He and his girlfriend, who live together in the south of England, decided that they would see no one for the next three months. Official guidelines stated that people must stay at home and self-isolate, so they didn’t think that this would be a controversial position to take.

And at first, it wasn’t. But then, as the government restrictions loosened and friends began inviting Josh and his girlfriend to social events, it got awkward.

“We would have to explain that we don't feel comfortable with breaking those rules,” Josh says. “At first, people were respectful of our decisions, then became quite rude and suggested we were just being flakey or stupid for following it to the letter. After time, we became social pariahs. No one would speak to us or invite us anywhere.”

Coronavirus has divided the nation. Unclear and changeable government guidelines that confuse the public and politicians alike have pushed many to form their own staunch views on the pandemic. To wear a mask, or not to wear a mask? To self-isolate, or not to self-isolate? To rave, or not to rave? These questions cause rifts between between neighbourshousemates and partners.

Indeed a new UK study by think-tank Demos found that lockdown rules – tightened again recently due to a growing number of cases – were more divisive than Brexit. After the 2016 referendum split the country in two, it seems that views on coronavirus run deeper than politics. The survey showed that 58 percent of mask-wearing Brits despised non-mask wearers – a far higher percentage than Remainers who hate Leavers, or vice versa.

For Josh, his choice to stick “to the letter” of the government’s coronavirus guidelines resulted in rejection from his social group. “What it did cause,” he says, “is a kind of change in friendships, a change in trusting people.”

It wasn’t just Josh’s friends who took issue with his strict rule-abiding. “Initially, telling my mum... produced a couple of frustrated, text conversations and a bit of tension between [the] family,” he says. “Telling us to ‘calm down’, and ‘it's not that bad’.”

He adds: “I think I had a grandparent say, ‘Don't worry if you give it to me.’ I was like, ‘I don’t want to!’”

While abiding by coronavirus guidelines may result in eye-rolling from friends, not abiding by the rules is certain to cause tension. The risk it carries is far higher: not wearing a face mask or refusing to social distance is proven to spread the virus, which has already killed over 42,000 people in the UK.

This is what Isa*, 23, found out when she decided against wearing a mask.

“I view [the rules] as very overbearing,” she says over the phone. “I don't want to have to be told to have to wear a mask. People think I am a conspiracy theorist, I don't think I am. I think we're leading towards a police state and it's not what I want to participate in, so I don't wear a mask. I just point-blank won't wear one.”

Isa says that a lot of her friends are as sick of the government restrictions as she is, but her family has taken issue with her anti-lockdown views. “With family, I've had issues,” she says. “I live alone, but my mum won't come and visit me, and she won't stay in the house if I'm there because obviously, I don't isolate. We've had arguments about it because she thinks I'm being ignorant.”

“It was my birthday in April, I hadn't seen her in a long time, [and] she wouldn’t come,” continues Isa, “and she came down once and had a go at me for going out and not wearing a mask.”

For Isa, who voted to remain in the EU referendum, coronavirus is far more divisive than Brexit. “This affects your day-to-day life, whereas people don't really think about that Brexit thing day-to-day, do you?” she says. “[Coronavirus] is something people are constantly bombarded with thinking about every day.”

With coronavirus at the forefront of everyone’s mind, it’s almost easy to forget the strain Brexit placed on many relationships at the time of the vote. Kate*, 28, didn’t speak to her brother for a year after differences over Brexit caused a huge rift between them. Now, once again falling on different sides of a debate, Kate supports the lockdown while her brother has taken to sharing anti-lockdown conspiracy theories with their family.

“He's just gone down a rabbit hole with it,” Kate says. “He's got worse and worse. This week, he actually got banned from Facebook for sharing conspiracy theories. He's now on this freedom of speech rant, saying that his freedom of speech has been denied.”

After the fall-out with her brother over Brexit, Kate is approaching the conflict differently this time. “It is fucking really hard,” she explains. “We had a very grown-up conversation about it, where I [explained] why I found him posting all these conspiracy theories... divisive, and why he felt the need to constantly cause conflict during a time when everyone is suffering and struggling. And he was like, ‘Fair enough. You're right, I shouldn't and constantly cause conflict, and I'm going to work on that.’”

Rules that restrict people’s personal freedoms were always going to be controversial, but the government’s chaotic response to the coronavirus crisis has undermined public trust. Anti-lockdown sentiment in the UK has grown substantially in recent weeks – last week, a gathering in Parliament Square protesting the measures attracted thousands of participants.

Kate has been able to maintain a relationship with her brother, but he shows no sign of dropping his coronavirus conspiracies. Does she think that they will remain on speaking terms, or will it be as bad as Brexit?

“I don’t know,” she says. “I'm learning how to talk to him. I think [with] Brexit, I was 26 and it was the first time I was really politically engaged... I didn't know how to have those conversations without there being conflict and without getting angry.”

“I'm now learning how to have a conversation across that divide that isn't necessarily a conflict,” she adds. “That's something I've really worked on because of my family situation. I don't want there to be division.”

*Some names have been changed.

@RubyJLL