At Rape Crisis Scotland we spend a lot of our time calling for compassion. Usually this is from the institutions and organisations that respond to survivors directly – the Police, Crown Office and health services for example – but as necessary Covid 19 restrictions continue to dominate our lives there’s been a shift in the public conversation that needs a closer look.
Our work at Rape Crisis is rooted in decades of working with and understanding trauma, and we can say with certainty that this pandemic has tested our endurance in a way that few of us have experienced before.
It is understandable that, after almost a year of living in a state of heightened fear and anxiety, many of us are feeling tense and at the end of our tether. Recent calls to our helpline have indicated that many are feeling the strain of this more than ever before, but also that legitimate anger and frustration is boiling over and scalding those it touches, including survivors. Rather than being targeted at those institutions that are supposed to protect all of us, wrath is directed at young people, people taking public transport, meeting a friend for a coffee and a walk – as though this is not a vital lifeline for many in times of isolation - and people not wearing masks.
Evidence shows that by and large people are adhering to the rules and making decisions about this based on minimising risk. Most of us feel bound by a sense of collective social responsibility, yet the few people who are flagrantly breaking the rules continue to be sought out and splashed across the front pages, decision makers are pressed on what more can be done to punish the minority who defy guidance and people take to Twitter to lambast those they judge to be wrong.
The early days of ‘we’re all in this together’ seem far away now, bitterness too often dominates and at a time where resilience is at an all-time low, the damage that the public conversation and peer policing is having on all of us, and especially on survivors, is worrying.
Take masks for example; some recent calls to our helpline have come from survivors legitimately exempt who have been challenged by employers, peers and in public places, despite guidelines clearly setting out that if a mask makes you feel trapped, claustrophobic, panicked or anxious then you do not have to wear one. Imagine for a second how that confrontation might feel to someone in that position.
In Scotland you are not required to ‘prove’ your exemption – though there is a card available for people who do wish to carry one – which also means you do not have to disclose the reason why you are exempt. This is absolutely right – people with invisible illnesses should not be forced to disclose their condition(s). Similarly, survivors of rape should not have to disclose their trauma to meet the illegitimate threshold of self-appointed mask monitors.
The impact of this on the climate we all must live in is severe. Far from the opportunity to breathe in the fresh air we all need to survive, for many leaving the house has become fraught with danger – danger of catching the virus, of unknowingly spreading it and of being met with hostility for not wearing a mask. Interactions are strained, gazes are averted and isolation is compounded as our connections fade. We know of survivors who haven’t been able to leave their houses – even for essential reasons like getting shopping, picking up prescriptions or doctor appointments. It doesn’t have to – and it should not – be this way.
These are hard times – it’s wearing, and difficult. In good faith we do understand that aggressive demands may be the result of fear and living through grief. Trauma can influence behaviours in many different ways and so many of us are struggling, isolated and desperate. We understand the urge to lash out - but demands for accountability must be targeted at those with power.
All of us must do our bit – and despite the headlines the evidence shows that the vast, vast, vast majority of us are. Let us try to trust in that and reach out with compassion, not suspicion, and let others in our communities go about their day knowing that not a single one of us wants this to last even a second longer than it must.