Coralynn Gehl is unfazed by insults from those who think she should mind her own business when it comes to passing judgment on those bending public-health guidelines. As far as the West Vancouver mom is concerned, COVID-19 has made one person’s careless choice everybody’s business – and she’s been vocal with her opinions since starting a pandemic Facebook group for local parents. This includes criticizing her neighbours for their ski trips to Whistler, proposing a boycott of a restaurant that refused to close indoor dining and calling out the mom who sent invitations to school for her kid’s birthday party.
When the pandemic is over, she predicts, “I will have slightly fewer friends. We are all seeing sides of each other that we can’t actually live with.”
After all these terrible months of trying to be patient, have we finally reached peak pandemic judgment? On social media, sniping about crowded mall parking lots and big-box store lineups is its own epidemic. Best not post a wistful selfie from a party you attended back in 2005 without putting the date in bold. Express an opinion – about the vaccine, government decisions, whether it’s safe to send your kid to school – and brace for the churn of hot and bothered.
Our better selves would follow the advice of B.C. Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry: Be kind, be calm, be safe. But it’s hard to stay on the high road when the finish line keeps moving.
“People are weaponizing kindness,” Ms. Gehl says. “They don’t want to follow the rules but if you say anything to them then you’re the one being unkind.”
Two weeks ago, Dylan Rhymer, a Vancouver comedian, had to remove a customer who refused to wear a mask from the video store where he works – just as he’s seen people being tossed from restaurants and public transit. With so much on the line, he says, there’s a responsibility to call out egregious rule breaking. “There are consequences to certain attitudes, and the longer we tolerate or ignore it, the longer this is going to drag on.”
In Langley, B.C., Lorraine Baldwin watched the people posting from ski hills and restaurants, and thought: “If you people would just follow the rules, we might be able to get out of this thing.” Seeing others being careless is particularly hard when she considers the pandemic’s toll on her own family: She recently saw her dad, who’s in long-term care with dementia, for the first time in a year and her teenagers, denied a social life, are struggling with loneliness.
“I was raised to think the best of people, but I have had flashes of anger,” she says, including one time on the street when she confronted a woman who was protesting masks. “There’s that old saying: Your right to swing your fist ends when it hits my nose. So how dare you?”
She worries that the people opposing the lockdown guidelines are the same ones standing too close in the grocery store. “I’m upset that things seem to be going backwards,” she says. “Wear your flippin’ mask, wash your hands, follow the rules. It’s not that hard.”
Verity Hill, in Toronto, prefers to avoid conflict: Not long ago, she walked 40 minutes after getting off the bus because someone ignored the seat spacing for physical distancing and sat down beside her. She also let a woman go ahead of her in line when another customer, standing too close, refused to pull up his mask. When people “forget” to follow the arrows at the grocery store, she wishes they knew her story: She lost both her parents to COVID-19 and has a sibling who is now seriously ill with the virus.
“COVID-19 has become a Netflix special that people are bored of watching,” she says. The lineups at box stores in the middle of third surge have been especially enraging. “Are you that big of a gambler? Is it that hard to just not go to Walmart?”
But how far does judgment really get us, if eats away at our own peace of mind? Research on vaccine hesitancy suggests that a heavy-handed approach isn’t that effective at changing minds. Yelling is usually counterproductive, Toronto neuropsychologist Sylvain Roy says. For one thing, getting in someone’s face puts you at greater risk of infection. And an angry tweet spreads more angry tweets.
Still, Dr. Roy says it is important to acknowledge that our frustration and anger are real – he feels it himself. “I am trying to be understanding – I don’t know what people are going through in life.” Those heated emotions, he adds, are also a response to conflicting public-health messages that have made following guidelines confusing.
He suggests people would probably benefit from less time on social media. “You end up on Twitter for half an hour, and your temperature starts to boil.” And he urges Canadians to stay to focused on the part they can play to end the pandemic. “We need to look inward not outward,” he says. “We only have control over our own behaviour in the context of an impossible ask.”
If you are going to speak up when someone is flouting public-health guidelines, Mr. Rhymer recommends being nice about it. In his experience, a respectful encounter usually ends with the person backing down or putting on their mask. “They might call you sheeple,” he says. “But it’s never come to blows.”
Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters and editors.