Covid-19 necessitates physical distancing, but it may deepen the social divide

Since the worldwide spread of the Sars-CoV-2 virus, the prominence of the term ‘social distancing’ has nagged me, as in my view it’s clearly a misnomer. Yet, I didn’t have the time to wrap my thoughts around the many aspects of this supposed wrong naming. Lately I regularly have to pass some posters in the streets of Leipzig (a German town of roughly 500.000 people) that nudged me to write down my thoughts on that subject.

The posters were put up by local authorities. The following one says “Show your solidarity [or: connection, or: bond, the noun is ambiguous), but with a distance.” It clearly doesn’t demand social distancing, but physical distance.

Another one even advocates the widening or deepening of social relations. It reads: “Share stories, not Corona,” and – as the first poster – uses the hastag-symbol (#leipzigbleibtzuhause in English #leipzigstaysathome) to entice people to go to so-called social media (hashtags are used, amongst others, on the corporate platforms Twitter and Facebook) and get in touch with others.

If ‘social’ means relations that living beings establish or maintain beyond mere biological ones (e.g. eating and being eaten), then what could be more social to share stories, to listen to narratives, to laugh, argue or disagree about a story?

The medical necessity for keeping a relative distance seems clear: The Sars-CoV-2 virus spreads primarily via respiratory droplets from coughs and sneezes within a range of about 1,8 metres. The advocated physical distance of 1,5m to 2m is a measure to avoid being infected when someone with the virus sneezes or coughs in the vicinity of another person. All this is physical; nothing ‘social’ about it.

Yet the misnomer ‘social distancing’ prevails. And measures proclaimed by many governments or authorities around the world are increasingly not only trying to distance people from each other (or protect them from droplet-spreading via protective clothing), but infringe, confine or even isolate them. In what follows, I’ll sketch out my two cents of wisdom opinion (1) why this may be the case, and (2) what this means for the social fabric in societies.

Possible reasons for the misnomer ‘social distancing’

When the Chinese government closed off many cities and confined their inhabitants to their homes in January and early February 2020, this forced quarantine received mixed reactions in media outlets from Germany, the UK or the US. Some questioned its feasibility, but most also sniffed at the idea of confining people to their homes, calling such measures “draconian” and being quite sure that liberal governments would never resort to such large infringements on the liberties of persons and – it was noted with a gasp – the economy.

When the pandemic arrived in Europe, terms like quarantine, shutdown or even lock-down were not only negative per se, but already associated with China. ‘Social distancing’ may have profited from the search for a new term.

Another point of my opinionated but not yet empirically substantiated hunch is that ‘social distancing’ was first used by a person, an institution or an entity with a lot of traction in the media environment. I didn’t have the time to track by whom the term was first used during the current pandemic, but its spread might have benefitted from the system of referentiality that is used by media in general and ‘social media’ in particular. Once a term is created by an influential individual, you have to refer to it to be part of the conversation. Even if you want to argue against ‘social distancing’, you have to use the #socialdistancing to get in touch with the audience you are interested in.

This more technical side, though, does not explain why the term has endured in spite of its clear misleading quality. If I want to speculate even further – as I have already done quite a bit, why not? – on an epistemological level, it underlines existing conservative assumptions on the social constitution of liberal societies.

How the rhetoric of social distancing re-enforces conservative social fabrics

One might wonder: Why all this fuss? So ‘social distancing’ is misplaced, why care? Isn’t this just the antics of a linguist or home-office-confined cultural studies scholar?

Not quite, because the acts of physical distancing that are enrolled in a rhetoric of social confinement are accompanied by political (i.e. socially relevant) decisions that re-enforce conservative fabrics of sociality.

The nuclear family as a safe haven

The federal system in Germany has resulted in different approaches by the 16 state governments. Some (including Saxony where I live right now) have opted to confine people to their homes, with only a handful of explicitly stated reasons for going out. Others have decided to control public spaces. Some have imposed fines for violations, others haven’t.

The Foucaultian body politics at play here are myriad, but I do not have the space to comment on them now. Just a quick nod to the panoptical qualities of surveillance based on handheld devices like smartphones might suffice here. Observing without being seen, withholding information on which data is aggregated and shared with whom: All this is a civil rights nightmare that is seriously debated to be turned into reality now.

What all states have adopted, though, is the idea of an ‘inner social circle’ a person has a right to interact with, even in times of Corona. This is a logical corollary of “social distancing:” If you define a social distance, you create the notion of social proximity. What or who forms part of this proximity and is thus excluded from restrictive measures is indirectly defined by the conditions that define the social distance.

This comes into play when, e.g., authorities have to decide who can visit a prisoner, a sick person in a hospital or an elderly person in a retirement home. All federal Germany governments have defined that circle to be the “core family”, which in sociological terms is the nuclear family.

Medically, this doesn’t make sense. If a granddaughter, who unknowingly is infected with Sars-CoV-2, visits her grandmother in a home for the elderly and inadvertently spreads the virus there, how is this any better than having an old friend of the grandmother visit her (and maybe spreading the virus as well)? There seems to be no reason why a person in a hospital is allowed to receive a visit from her (maybe estranged) parents, but may have trouble for her lover, a close friend or a flatmate to visit.

Defining the nuclear family as the only social entity allowed in your physical proximity is a highly conservative view. That authorities all over Germany (not only those from self-proclaimed Conservative parties like the CDU) have reflexively fallen back on such a view (which, again, seems to have no grounding in virology, but is a socially-driven decision) shows the predominance of conservative notions in the major political parties. And in the population, as most people seem to concur with these infringements.

The local community and nation state as extensions of the nuclear family

Travel restrictions were put in place throughout the European Union, echoing the above mentioned Chinese reaction. Yet, different countries included exceptions for people who still wanted to cross their borders. This included a certain set of workers (see my next point), and, in the case of Germany, citizens who were travelling abroad. The foreign minister announced on March 17, 2020, that his ministry planned to organise return flights for tourists who were stranded elsewhere. This was a necessity, as many countries (again: including Germany) had ordered foreigners (tourists, people visiting their ex-pat family members, some workers) to leave and return to the country they hold citizenship of.

The necessity of this is debatable. It means more travel (within the country and in the air) and in the case of Germany may mean that people who had been in areas with low infection rates now having to return to highly-infected Germany.

What is obvious, though, is the rhetoric being employed for these return flights. Media used words like “Rückholaktion” (callback) or even “Luftbrücke.” The latter means airlift and has been employed for the Berlin Airlift (1948-49), a US operation to support the Allied sector of Berlin when it was cut off by the Soviet administration right after WWII. This rhetoric paints the picture of a nation besieged and the nation state as the only safe haven for its citizens. And only for its citizens, as foreigners are routinely kicked out.

The imposition of travel restrictions within Germany transplants this notion to an even smaller unit: the home turf. This may be a village, a town or a federal state; in any case it clearly demarcates insiders and outsiders and connects this demarcation with a notion of physical health. The not-so-sublime message is: “Stay with your own people, keep your surroundings pure and your health will be safeguarded.” The connection with racism is obvious: Dangerous pathogens exist in foreign bodies only, the bodies that are marked as ‘our own’ (the individual bodies of the nuclear family and the more abstract body of the unified nation state) are healthy and have to be protected from ‘invasions’ of all kinds.

That German authorities nevertheless were quick to exempt seasonal agricultural labourers – mostly from Romania and Hungary – and even organised flights to bring them into the country, is contradictory but understandable. There is more than one logic governing complex reactions like that to the Sars-CoV-2 virus. The economic value of the asparagus harvest due in these days is too high for German industrialised agriculture to ignore, and thus agricultural lobbyists seem to have intervened successfully.

The conditions these labourers are brought into are as bad as before: Pay hasn’t risen, and the conditions are even worse. The labourers aren’t allowed to leave the farm (which makes them even more dependent on the supplies given by their employer), and after an initial health check on arrival at the airport, the responsibility for the fulfilment of safety and health requirements is put completely in the hands of their employers. Who, obviously, don’t want anybody to be quarantined or sent away, so presumably there won’t surface any report on health issues anywhere.

The report by the Tagesschau, a major news broadcaster in Germany, on the arrival of the seasonal labourers is hard to stomach. The reporter only gives voice to the employer, who talks about “her helpers” and is given the possibility to extoll not only her highly favourable treatment of the workers (by paying them extra on top of the minimum wage) but also how hard it was for her to organise the trip. The employer is given the chance to speculate that the confined people won’t find their situation dire because there’s “so much space” on the farm and, as a final disgrace, that they can buy what they are lacking in foodstuffs at the farm-owned kiosk. It’s tempting to draw comparisons with company shops in systems of wage slavery, but that would maybe be a bit too far-fetched.

Systemically irrelevant people and the aberrant

Exemptions from the restrictions are geared towards people in systemically relevant jobs and positions. This can mean a lot of things, and is debatable on many fronts, but I’d like to focus on two aspects. First, how the ‘systemically relevant’ are addressed; second, which groups of people are nolens volens marked as irrelevant, and which ones are falling through this bifurcation.

Interestingly, ‘relevancy’ seems to be hard to pinpoint. Jobs in agriculture, the health and care sector or transport are more or less obviously relevant to keep the current economic system going and to infringe the spread of the virus. Yet, also construction workers, some cleaners, movers, certain accountants and a hotchpotch of others are exempted from the possibility to stay at home due to their supposed relevancy. Again, in a liberal society, different interest groups seem to have rightfully intervened in the law-making process with different results.

Even more interestingly, citizens holding ‘relevant’ jobs or positions are lauded, thanked and in some cases literally applauded, but do not seem to receive any other remuneration, e.g. pay rises. While parliamentarians were quick to start a credit and possible bailout process that is geared towards institutions perceived as relevant, the workers in these institutions are so far mere chimeras in this process. Health and care workers, delivery workers or agricultural labourers have worked in dire circumstance in the years and months before the pandemic, and when it’s over, it seems they’ll fall back into the same circumstances. It is noteworthy that ‘systemic relevancy’ translates into visibility in the current debate, but does not seem to translate into bargaining power for future progress. ‘Relevant’ seems to mean: “Go on with your work by all means and under all circumstances, but do not expect any change.” I’m not sure if I ever want to be in a systemically relevant position.

Which leaves those people who are deemed not-so-relevant or even irrelevant for the current system. Which means: seemingly the majority of the work force in Germany. What does it mean when an economic system at its core supposedly doesn’t need a huge swath (the majority?) of currently employed workers? Well, it could mean that these workers should urgently attempt to change this system so that they are relevant again. Which in turn would mean that the system becomes relevant for them again. And it might become relevant for the majority of people again when ‘the system’ honours relevancy with social, physical and also financial remuneration.

As always with binaries, tertium datur: When there are ‘the relevant’ and ‘the irrelevant’, there’s also a group that doesn’t quite fit with these distinctions. Those that are aberrant according to the categories of definition set by someone else. Right now, this group includes homeless people (#leipzigstaysathome? Simply not possible), imprisoned people (where home means masses of people with a steady influx of newcomers), migrant people confined to mass accommodations (see ‘imprisoned people’ because often that’s what they are) and all those working with the above mentioned. When a rhetoric of inclusion and exclusion is centred on the nuclear family, the nation state or local community and the individual home as a staple of petite bourgeois lifestyle, all individuals who do not fit neatly into these categories are ‘othered’. Not having a category for them, they fall outside of current debates and efforts and run the risk of being singled out as complete outsiders. Which, of course, they already are for a lot of people, so that the current situation is basically an aggravation, another turn of the screw.

The headline of this longish entry signposted this already: While the pandemic necessitates physical distancing to a certain degree, under the misnomer of ‘social distancing’ we see the implementation of measure that cement a conservative view of society, relationships and belonging. And while all members of society may have to bear the brunt of the decisions now taken, those people already on the fringes of this conservative view are in danger of being marginalised even more. The project of deepening the social fissures might be gaining speed right under our very eyes, with everybody guarding its ‘social distance’.


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