Worries and actions about transmission of the virus

Covid-19 is an airborne virus, which means that is usually transmitted through the air. Early in the pandemic there were lots of different ideas about how the virus might be transmitted between people.

Temitope first thought Covid was transmitted through touch, but later learnt that the virus passed through the air.

In this section we look at how people tried to protect themselves and their households, others in their networks and the wider community. This page covers:

  • Avoiding bringing the virus into the home
  • Balancing risks against competing priorities
  • Protecting vulnerable people and the wider community
  • Differences of opinion and conflict

Avoiding bringing the virus into the home

In 2020, a big worry among people we spoke to was whether the danger was mainly through touching contaminated surfaces, or whether you had to be in the same room as someone who was infected for ‘15 minutes’ or more. Others worried about being infected if they walked close to someone in the street and tried hard to maintain distance.

After the March 2020 when people were in ‘lockdown’ many people were very nervous about anyone, or anything, coming into their house. Those who did not have to leave home for work did things like spraying disinfectant on all packages they received in the post, wearing gloves while putting away the shopping and regularly cleaning and sanitising doors, bathrooms and shared areas of the house.

Lyn who works in mental health used masks and sanitising wipes and sprays. She was sad and disappointed in herself when she found out she had Covid.

Mahabuba wore a mask and avoided going out. She was worried about the impact of Covid on her existing health condition.

Gulsoom and others said that only one person in the household went out to get shopping and they changed their usual shopping patterns to avoid crowded spaces. Frequent washing of hands and sanitising became normal. Some people we spoke to took extra precautions. Mr. Eshaan did not even open letters until they had been in the house a week and Sunita kept her dog away from other dogs in case the virus might be transmitted that way.

Kashif was still working in his business at the start of the pandemic and was very careful to shower before he saw his children at home. Households that included ‘key workers’ who met with members of the public through work in shops, as taxi drivers or as health and care workers were particularly careful when coming back into the home.

Razia’s husband is a taxi driver. To address their worries about him bringing the virus home he changed clothes and showered as soon as he came in from work.

Jaswinder’s husband works in a supermarket and avoided contact with his family in the evenings. This was hard for their son.

Aytana, Sam and Dawn, among others, pointed out that safety measures were sensible and that the ‘rules are there for a reason’. Everyone we talked to for this study had been unwell with Covid, despite all of their efforts to avoid the virus. People were sometimes very confused about how this could have happened. Several people told us that they were disappointed, or even ‘ashamed’ to have caught Covid. Even people who felt they had been following all the rules when they became ill sometimes felt shame.

Sam X felt embarrassed and ashamed when she got Covid in summer 2021.

Balancing risks against competing priorities

We talked to people whose concerns about avoiding transmission to close family members had to be balanced with other priorities, for example caring for young children or older people. Sue, for example, explained that because her father was hard of hearing he could not understand what was said if people wore masks.

Jess, who works as a doctor, was aware that she was probably ‘shedding virus everywhere’ but she and her husband decided that it would be too difficult and upsetting for their child if she separated herself. They also reasoned that being healthy, young and White their risk of serious illness was relatively small. Other people we spoke to, such as Sarita, decided it was worth trying to separate, even if it was sad. Not everyone was able to make these choices about isolating from each other, because of home size or caring responsibilities.

When Sonal’s son became ill with Covid he used a different toilet and she left his meals outside his bedroom on a tray.

As the pandemic continued, concerns about the impact of isolation on mental health and the potential damage to children’s lives and education led many to wonder what was the right thing to do. Some people we spoke to reviewed their actions regularly, which might involve either more or less cautious behaviour than the official advice.

Some people we spoke to reflected that they had probably been a bit ‘over the top’ at first but often they knew of others who they felt had been even more cautious. Sindhu said that she had felt quite resigned that she would be infected with Covid because her husband is a medic.

Many of the people we talked to said that they had continued to avoid crowded spaces, outdoor as well as indoor, throughout the pandemic, regardless of the current ‘rules’. Early on, people often crossed the road to give other people space. When wearing a mask on public transport and in shops became law, most people accepted that they should wear a mask around other people.

Haliza, a frequent traveller, was familiar with Asian countries where it is normal to wear a mask to protect others.

Protecting vulnerable people and the wider community

While some were willing to accept a certain amount of risk for themselves or young and healthy members of their households, there was collective concern about people who were elderly or had underlying health problems. This meant that some of the people we talked to did not see their older relatives for many months, especially if they lived in a care home. Samena said that her mum did not really understand why they could not visit each other and sit and talk together as usual. People we spoke to also recognised that there were risks faced by people who were from ethnic and religious minority communities.

Surindar was immuno-compromised after chemotherapy and was fearful of going out.

Shaista became ill in March 2020. She isolated in her room to help protect her mother.

Differences in opinion and conflict

The pandemic has been a time of great uncertainty, anxiety and differences of opinion. Sometimes these worries have caused arguments. The most debated issues described by people we talked to were whether or not people were sticking to ‘the rules’ about mixing with others, and whether or not they were wearing masks when required. Cindy commented that some people from Hong Kong, who are used to wearing masks, feel that people in England are selfish because they do not wear masks.

Medhi was very worried that students on his course were not wearing masks. He stopped attending and asked for online access.

Members of the same household, family or friendship group did not always agree about how best to stay safe or whether they needed to protect each other. Parents told us that they were quite sure that their children were not obeying the rules, although some also understood that it was very difficult to maintain distance at school and it was more important that children could socialise.

In the media young people, who were generally at lower risk of serious illness from Covid, were sometimes blamed for being less ‘responsible’. Karin was initially frustrated by young people who appeared not to care about the risk they posed for others but is more understanding now.

Cat says that she was very careful when staying with her parents but that when she came back to University she did not want to be a ‘party pooper’ and joined in with the socialising.

Karin feels less judgmental than she was at the beginning of the pandemic.

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