Katherine Prentice reflects on how difficult lockdown was as a shielder and why asking high-risk people to remain inside is a bad idea.
Seemingly ever-changing and ever-more confusing restrictions related to the current pandemic have been wearing most of us down lately. Feeling so restricted and constantly having to readjust is hard. It may seem time to “return to normal” and ask those most vulnerable to the virus to continue shielding to allow the rest of us to get back to classes, pubs, and the movies – but what these calls for “protection” and “normality” really mean is keeping those who have been or still are shielding hidden away, isolated from the outside world. The only way to truly protect those with underlying health issues is for everyone to try their best to help prevent the spread of the virus the best we can.
During lockdown, my family were shielding. This is something I never expected to experience, and something which was extremely difficult for us all. It was necessary to protect our physical health, but it took a significant toll on our mental health and even on our relationships. It had its good parts too, and overall I would say we are closer as a family for it, but it was also terrifying. Members of my family have autism and anxiety, and this on top of physical health problems made this pandemic a living nightmare for us. Of course, lockdown was incredibly difficult for all of us, but I’d like you to consider what the reality of another lockdown for us “vulnerable” folks would mean.
Imagine lockdown but without your daily exercise, without being able to go to the shops, and living off of government-provided Baxter’s chicken broth and baked potatoes. Imagine knowing that if you caught this virus, you are far more likely to end up seriously ill, or to make your family seriously ill, or worse. Imagine crying in Aldi because people keep walking next to you, and you know how at risk your family are. This was our experience and that of thousands of other families. It was even for those shielders who live alone.
Somehow, the hardest part has been trying to come out of shielding. Every time we go out we feel scared and guilty, but it’s necessary. For people with conditions like autism or anxiety, this is even harder; uprooting routine again and again, and trying to face the public with new threats and new “normal” behaviours makes this hellish. Trying to stop fearing everyone we see is an enormous challenge, and it can feel much easier to continue to hide inside. But as people come out of shielding, it is important to help protect them, not encourage them back in.
It is more dangerous for those who have been shielding to try to go back to normal, but it is necessary to avoid a new epidemic of loneliness and mental health problems. When people first started meeting up and going outside, we were still on square one. But there is only so long you can stay inside. For autistic people or those with mental health issues, it’s even more difficult to readjust than it has been for the rest of us. The longer it goes on and the more times we get pushed back into shielding, the more isolated and anxious shielders will become.
Suggesting that those who are vulnerable should just stay inside longer is ignorant. If we otherwise go “back to normal”, the cases will rise along with the risk for everyone, including those shielding. This won’t protect anyone. Measures are needed to prevent the spread for everyone. This shouldn’t be an “us” and “them” issue, we should want to protect everyone. It is hard to still be so far from “normal”, but the truth is it will be a very long time before any semblance of normality returns. It will feel like one step forward and two steps back at points, but this is needed to allow shielders to move forward at all.
High-risk people can not be hidden away, even for our protection. We still need to live. Surviving this virus is not the only thing we are worrying about. As someone with an autoimmune disease, I’ve let it steal enough of my life already. I won’t hide inside and be further isolated because you miss the pub. It’s hard, but it is beneficial for everyone to continue with social distancing measures, not just those at a higher risk. A repeat of lockdown may even be necessary, although it will be detrimental to shielders and their families mental health. The way around this is to do our best to slow the spread and reach out to those we know who are at high-risk and let them know they aren’t, and won’t be, alone.