Purity, Danger and Everyday Social Distancing: Dispatches from the Coronaland Border Day Two

Disclaimer: I am not a medical or public health practitioner and nothing I say here is intended, as or should be taken in any way as, advice or guidance on isolation or social distancing practices.

I did not think I could feel more lonely than I already did until this morning.

I woke up ready to embrace the new normal, having taken time yesterday to cry and worry and accept. Yesterday, I took walks and wrote and did some online teaching and spent a lot of time on social media.

Today, I started the day with facebook as is often the case. I read that article that I had been putting off about how the hyper wealthy are isolating themselves from the virus, retreating to their islands, literal and figurative, with their hoarded medical supplies. I noted that several people had shared the many posts that I have also shared which express concern for the working classes who cannot take off work, many of whom, as a result, either have or will contract the virus and are well positioned to keep it spreading. I liked several statuses that informed me of the still-insufficient-but-essential measures our governments are starting to take to provide relief to people and enable them to take off work. (Since I started writing this, more measures have been agreed on, but it is still not enough.)

And then I engaged in a series of conversations with people in my immediate community regarding the measures of social distancing they are taking. Our family had planned to exert what I thought was the utmost caution. We are all working and schooling from home and planned to significantly limit contact to pretty much our extended family and neighbors, practicing several feet of separation with people who don’t live in our house and spending social time outdoors. But, I learned, that many are taking the most stringent measures, effectively quarantining their family. Some people have chosen to effectively quarantine but with one other family, a “buddy family” as it would be.

Well, that all happened fast.

This raises all kinds of panicky sort of questions. Should we be radically isolating? Are we behind the curve? Have we already hurt people? Are they all going too far? Can they keep it up? And, most of all, should I have a buddy? Who would they be? Why didn’t anyone ask me to be their buddy? I sort of feel like I’m back in middle school again. I’ll admit that as the lonely kid in me is a little triggered: I was always picked last for the team, didn’t have a date to the prom and always had anxieties when pairing off was required because I knew I wasn’t anyone’s first choice. The adult in me embraces the fact that I don’t pair bond very mostly because when it comes to people I care about, I can’t choose. When it comes to my community, I love all of you. The thought of choosing a buddy family would be far too stressful.  But now, the stakes are higher because I’m also asking: if we don’t have a buddy family, will we die? And, if one of us gets sick, who will help us out??

I’d always imagined that when the apocalypse came that I would have my people around me. That is how humans have always gotten through things. Together. At these times, many have the wonderful instinct to help people more in need. Many are checking in on neighbors, offering to bring them food. But how do we reconcile that generous instinct with the logic of radical social distancing?  When our paranoia about spread and contagion gets out of control, how long will the generosity of spirit last?

While there is consensus that closing schools and other sites of large gatherings is essential, there is some debate about the degree to which we should isolate. There is increasing evidence, as of the last 24 hours or so,  that the virus can be spread asymptomatically and perhaps is more contagious before we show symptoms, but there are still more questions than answers. Not having access to testing throws fuel on this whole fire of uncertainty. The nightmare scenarios in Italy call for rapid, immediate total quarantine. Other more moderate voices suggest that we don’t need to totalize our isolation, but we do need to be extremely sensible and vigilent. It’s certainly not the time to throw a party.

I went for a walk today with my son and dog. I observed one family on bikes stop outside the gate of a large house. The family inside the gate pointed a rake at them through the bars of the gate and joked, “don’t steal our toilet paper!” I noted that they did not open the gate or come out. I observed another cluster of people in conversation next to the mailbox—a couple and a single woman. They spoke at a safe distance. Was it my imagination or did a couple of other people seem to walk in a wider than usual circle around us? Then I passed a coffee shop that looked totally normal with a dozen people sitting in close proximity.

We seem to be diving into several camps: those who believe that we all must practice radical social distancing; those who believe in practicing  more moderate, but still extreme, social distancing; those who just haven’t gotten the memo at all; and those whose economic or professional circumstances do not allow them any social distance at all.

I have all kinds of questions.

Where are our boundaries? Clearly we still plan to go grocery shopping once in a while and receive deliveries. We will need gas for our cars. We will need to pick up stuff from the pharmacy.  Some people will need to go to work.

What is the new etiquette as we inevitably engage in public spaces? What happens when you see someone on the street while walking your dog? Do you cross the street anxiously looking away awkwardly, as if your dog had lunged at another? Do you stop abruptly and call out cheerfully, “six feet please!”? Do you stop awkwardly and unsurely? Do you start to interrogate your friends and neighbors about who they’ve had contact with recently and who their contacts have had contact with? Or do you just not leave your house?

I’ve caught myself thinking about friends and neighbors and family members as potential vectors rather than people. I’ve started to train my children to not touch. My ears are constantly perked up for the sound of a cough. I police every feeling in my and my children’s bodies with such rigor that I’m probably producing psychosomatic symptoms and certainly producing stress. What are the costs of all of this? How do we retain anything that looks normal in the midst of this?

What do we do about people who can’t socially distance, people we have to have regular contact with? Delivery workers, people who work in pharmacies and grocery stores? Health care workers?  All the people who we will rely on as we distance, the people who enable our distancing? Sure, I can do the right thing and quarantine my family, if that is indeed the right thing, but what about people who can’t? What do we do about those who need food delivered? What do we do about those who continue to have to work out there in the dangerous space of contagion in order to allow us to isolate our children? What do we do about their children?

We all want to do the right thing and halt contagion to avoid the health care system collapsing and save as many people as possible, but what is the right thing? The emerging, dominant narrative goes like this: Italy did the right things and look at them. They are triaging patients as they would in wartime. We are two weeks behind. The only choice is radical isolation. If we isolate, we save those who cannot.

Many argue that it is the responsible choice of those of us who have the ability to do so, to isolate in order to protect those who do not. This is logical and there is a very good chance this is the best thing to do. But is this salvation? Or another form of triage? Is this not a way of saying: We will take extreme measures to ensure that we live so that  fewer of them will die.

There are many forms of contagion. If we care about protecting all of us, do we do that by containing and isolating us and our own? As an upper middle-class community, is radical isolation really about protecting the community? Or is this the middle class version of the island retreat that the wealthy are escaping to? I don’t know the answer.

Aside from, or alongside, the question of whether radical social isolation is the right thing to do (it likely may be), I’d like to suggest that our instinct to do so reflects a drive towards purification. A need to purify when we are in danger is a very human reaction as anthropologist Mary Douglas tells us in the book that I took my title from, Purity and Danger. This is what we do when things feel completely wrong, when we feel we have been polluted, when “matter is out of place” in small or large ways.  This is the way we react to our societies changing, to children growing up, to dirt, to immorality, to things we do not understand because they do not fit with our worldview and to novel viruses. We do this every day when we clean the house or do the laundry or give our children a bath. We punctuate the life course with rituals that mark transitions and therefore make matter out of place feel safer. We believe that this purifies ourselves and our communities. At our worst, we may kill people or expel them because of our perception that they are polluting our community, because they are posing mortal danger to us. A turn to purity is an attempt at creating a kind of stability and social structure amidst times of deep instability. The impetus to purify is very human, but purity also has problems.

It is very true that we do not know much about this disease and that the science coming out now says that it is far more contagious than we ever imagined. It is also true that this is not the only threat to our species. Many things make social distance dangerous, perhaps more dangerous, than COVID-19 meaning that all of us will be navigating the grey areas between different dangers. Some of us need to venture out of isolation to care for others. Some households are socially and emotionally unhealthy places that may turn abusive in times of extreme isolation. All of us need to eat and, therefore, break isolation to venture out to the store. No one can isolate perfectly. The reality is that there are many grey areas, spaces of potential contagion that threaten our efforts at purifying.

The reason we like boundaries, and the clear directives about staying pure and away from germs is because they make us feel safe and in control. The reality is that we are all, always, deciding among the multiple grey areas. We are all, always, on the boundary in one way or the other. The problem with purity is that it does not exist.

So for now all we can do is do our best to follow along with expert advice and directives. It would sure help if there were more consensus, not to mention widespread, early testing. But we must advocate for more supports to enable everyone who possibly can to stay home. And we must, at the end of the day, remember our humanity and try to keep everything as normal as possible in the midst of everyday social distancing.

Moving forward, in the absence of testing and clear leadership, we will all hold the line as well as we can and in the way we think best given the best information we have. Whether we practice moderate or radical social distancing, or none at all, we also need to remain an us. We are all in this together: the neighbor whose child is still having playdates, the woman at the counter at the pharmacy, the delivery man who anxiously hands us our groceries, the celebrities on their islands, and even our utterly mad, hand-shaking leaders.  And because we are us, we cannot escape pollution, as isolated and distant as we may be.

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