Ellen Page, an 18-year-old university student from Northampton, was hospitalised with Covid last June. “I have never felt weaker,” she says. “I cou
Ellen Page, an 18-year-old university student from Northampton, was hospitalised with Covid last June. “I have never felt weaker,” she says. “I couldn’t lift my head off the pillow. I had hot sweats. It was really scary.” During the four days she was in hospital, she took comfort in messages from childhood friends. “They were all texting me, saying, ‘We hope you get better, we wish we could see you.’”
Months later, these same friends began flouting lockdown rules. “It started with a few of them posting anti-lockdown tweets, saying that it was fine [to break the rules], because only a small percentage of people were dying.” Still drained from being ill, she focused instead on her studies. But then Christmas rolled around and, while most of the country was under tier 4 restrictions, Page saw her friends throwing parties and posting pictures of them on social media. “They were all gathered at their family houses, with three households together. Then in the evening, new people arrived. It was like there was no pandemic.”
She unfollowed or muted them on social media, but didn’t confront them. “I don’t want to argue, I feel like Covid has been a breeding ground for arguments.” Still, those friendships are effectively over. “It’s sad because they’ve been a massive part of my life since I was six or seven. But I’ve seen what their morals are, and I don’t want to be friends with people who would put other lives at risk.”
As a nation, we have become fearful and fed-up – and often, we take it out on each other. Friends have fallen out for all kinds of pandemic-related reasons: for rule infractions; for being insufficiently attentive on the weekly Zoom; or for being always bored and grouchy. “There’s a lot of frustration right now,” says Mahzad Hojjat of University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, co-author of The Psychology Of Friendship. “People may have lost their jobs. They are tired of a pandemic which feels like it is never going away.” The past year has laid bare fundamental differences in our values, attitudes and priorities; many of us have seen friends in a new light. “People view their friends breaking the rules as a personal attack,” says Holly Roberts, a psychotherapist with the charity Relate.
It wasn’t always this way. At the beginning of the pandemic, many of us reconnected with friends and acquaintances, or joined Covid-19 mutual aid groups. Geoff, a 69-year-old retired graphic designer from Cheshire, was one of those people. “I set up a WhatsApp group among our friends,” he says. “I thought that we could share worries and fears and jokes. Within three weeks, I had bailed out of my own group.” It all went wrong when he started to criticise the government’s response to Covid. “I got a comment back from one friend saying, ‘We all have to be a bit more positive.’” He realised that most of the group only shared baking photos, and weren’t interested in chatting about politics. So he checked out. “I can make pitta bread now,” he says, “but I’m not interested in sharing a picture of it.”
Since then, Geoff has grown further estranged from his friends, mostly because of what he sees as their liberal interpretation of the lockdown rules. “It’s been lots of seemingly small incidents that collectively leave my partner and me feeling isolated from people we thought shared our values for 30 years. It feels like we’re the only ones complying.” He fell out with one former work colleague because of her decision to form multiple support bubbles with neighbours (she lives alone). “One bubble suddenly contained 15 people,” he says. “You think, I don’t want to cause big arguments, but this is lunacy.” Another couple decided to travel from a tier 4 to a tier 2 area, justifying it as “no big deal” because they weren’t planning to leave the house much.
Some might think he is judging his friends too harshly, but others who have lost loved ones, or who are still living with Covid’s lingering after-effects, would share his frustration. “The reason Covid is so divisive is because it’s a moral issue,” explains Roberts. “If people are hanging out with others and spreading the virus, that is harmful. It can be hard for people to accept that their friends are behaving in that way, and when you lose respect for someone, that’s difficult to come back from.” Like Page, Geoff has avoided challenging his friends. People become defensive, he says. “They snap back at you. You think, OK, I’ll back off.”
Roberts advises caution if confronting a friend on rule-breaking behaviour. “The main thing is to try not to be accusatory,” she says, “or to shame someone. Everyone has their own circumstances and deals with things in different ways. Start from the place of saying, ‘I am letting you know how your behaviour is affecting me, and I’d like to hear your point of view.’ You can have a conversation rather than a shouting match.” Hojjat advises calmly and carefully referencing the bigger picture, and the effect their actions could have on vulnerable people. “Explain that this isn’t just about one person’s behaviour. It’s a public health issue.”
That said, it is not always worth getting into it with friends. “You should make a distinction between long-term friendships that you really treasure, and acquaintances,” says Hojjat. If you have been friends since primary school, for example, “you should think twice before breaking that friendship, and try and work things out. But if they are people you aren’t that close to, it might be easier to just move on.”
Of course, such conversations only work if both parties accept the reality of the pandemic. Attempting to reasonably engage with your conspiracy-theorist friend can only be deeply frustrating. Edward Farrow, a 47-year-old bank communications worker from Rochester, fell out with a childhood friend over his anti-lockdown views. “Blocking him [on social media] wasn’t a decision that I took lightly. But he’s tweeting this extraordinarily dangerous stuff that isn’t backed up by evidence.”
Friends since school, the two men had followed a similar path into adulthood. They met up regularly for drinks when they both lived in London; and after Farrow left the city, stayed in touch online. Farrow knew his friend was a contrarian by nature. “He’s always had that propensity,” he says. “But I liked that he’d sometimes challenge me, and we’d have interesting debates.”
Now, when Farrow attempted to challenge his view that Covid is a hoax, he became ill-tempered. “He told me that he was ‘disappointed in me’ for being swept up in this ‘propaganda’. He got quite aggressive.” After he shared a Laurence Fox tweet urging the public to take off their masks and gather in groups, Farrow blocked him, effectively bringing an end to a friendship of 30-plus years. He occasionally thinks about trying to deradicalise his old friend, but there doesn’t seem to be any point. “It wouldn’t go anywhere,” says Farrow. “And I would lose my mind.”
And of course conspiracy theorists are likely to feel just as alienated from their friends as people whose views are grounded in reality. Fatima, a 28-year-old account executive from London, spreads misinformation about Covid online. “At the end of the day it’s a cold,” she tells me. “The death rate is not as extreme as people are making it seem. A lot of the people [who died of Covid] were meant to die [anyway].”
When she shared these views with her best friend from school in April, the relationship dwindled. “It was like I was a stranger to her, or a traitor. She said, ‘Why are you thinking like this?’ She doesn’t call me as much. I would love to stay friends with her. I hope that when Covid is over, we can talk it out face to face.”
Many of the people I spoke to shared a sense of loss, even grief, at realising that people they were friends with for decades might not be any more. “I avoid going places where I might bump into them,” says Page of her former friends. “I don’t want to have to make conversation, and I definitely don’t want to argue. I keep myself to myself.” Geoff worries about what will happen when normal life resumes. “My real concern is how comfortable I’m going to feel meeting these friends again . How will I move on with people when this is over?”
Some rifts will be irreparable. If there is someone in your life you just can’t respect any more, advises Roberts, tell them – kindly. “Ghosting is horrible,” she says. “Don’t do that. Tell them they are doing something you disagree with, and you are choosing to end the friendship.” She also advises us to remember that, for those lucky enough to survive the pandemic, Covid will one day be a distant memory. “Take a step back,” she counsels, “and remember why you became friends with that person in the first place. Everyone’s emotions are heightened at the moment. Maybe in a few months, you’ll be able to reestablish a relationship, when you’re feeling a bit more positive, and the pressures of lockdown aren’t there any more.” If you can salvage a friendship, do. You might need them on the other side.
Some names have been changed.