COVID and Community




I WROTE THIS PIECE March 20–22, 2020. I wanted to make some sense of the COVID-19 crisis as I, and perhaps many others, were experiencing it just at that moment. That crisis is, of course, rapidly evolving, so the facts, opinions, interventions, and social practices reported here may well seem out of date by the time of reading. But I am also a historian and sociologist, and I refract real-time experiences through perspectives that are not so time-specific. I hope that this unstable juxtaposition of the transient and the durable will prove worthwhile: we will be passing through many future transient moments and we need a wide range of less transient resources to help us understand what is happening and what it means for the texture of our lives.

¤

COVID-19 is very contagious. Infection spreads from one person to several others. We don’t yet have the exact figures, but COVID is probably much less contagious than measles and more contagious than the average seasonal influenza. Contagion travels by personal contact — by touching others’ bodies, by inhaling what others exhale, and by handling what others have handled. The ways in which we are now dealing with the virus, and the yet-unknown ways in which we may have to deal with it in the near future, are specific to our times. In the early 21st century, we have modern channels along which contagion spreads, modern scientific knowledge for understanding contagion, modern public health institutions for managing our responses, and hopes for new technologies for producing a vaccine — all of which make the COVID pandemic different from any other contagious outbreak in the history of humankind.

But contagious diseases have always been with us, and one thing that COVID has in common with the contagions of the historical past is that all of them are at once diseases of the physical body and the social body. [1] Consider the etymology: contagion means together plus touch. That’s why social distancing, and still more selfisolating, are no small things. They put us out of touch. John Donne, suffering from fever, said that no man is an island, and we may be on our way to finding out what that really means. 

COVID is a social disease, a pathological experiment on the nature of our social relations. It is experienced in our social life in four major ways, and our responses bear upon the nature of our society. There are the everyday forms of our social life; the divisions within society that shape our experiences and concerns; the attitudes toward social boundaries — who belongs and who does not; and the social forms available for reacting to threats. 

We bond together by touching; we share sorrow and joy by touching. If we cannot mourn together at funerals and celebrate together at weddings, then the events themselves are scarcely what they are supposed to be. Restrictions of gatherings mean hard times for the wedding industry and disappointment for brides and grooms. Not just unburied bodies but bodies denied collective mourning, and what’s called decent sepulchre, mean far more than lost income for the undertakers. 

The handshake, the kiss, the embrace — their forms, durations, and modes of performance mark the nature, meaning, and intensity of our engagements. Decades ago, sociologists of the face-to-face domain — Erving Goffman and his followers —  described the handshake as an access ritual, a way of opening relations, of closing them, of signaling who we are and what we expect of others. [2] Historically, men didn’t always shake hands; they didn’t always shake the hands of women; and today different cultures establish access and index its degrees through different physical gestures. But, for us, we lose a lot when we lose the social kiss, the embrace, the handshake. We lose modes of intimacy and commitment, and so intimacy and commitment are diminished just when we most need them. And we also lose a mode of distancing and rejection. At the State of the Union address in January, Trump refused to shake Nancy Pelosi’s hand. At the time, this was a gesture of contempt; now, it might well be taken as a prudent ritual of hygiene. Should soccer be played again during the COVID era, managers will have to find novel ways of expressing disdain for referees and opponents, and, should The Great British Bake Off resume, Paul Hollywood will have to keep his hands in his pocket and congratulate baking virtuosity using mere words. 

COVID is writing new scripts for offering access and expressing commitment. There’s the dude elbow-bump; the gymnastic foot-shake; the namaste hand-press-and-bow rigmarole. But we aren’t fluent in performing any of these; they don’t belong to us; our faces leak sheepish irony when we do them; and the potential for embarrassment is huge. A friend extends a hand or offers a hug-and-kiss: if you decline, you feel like a jerk; if you accept, you set aside caring concern about mutual infection. The gestures of greeting and access were forged in cultures without the categories of bacteria and viruses: it’s not easy now to arrange ourselves as if friends and family were threats to us and as if we were threats to them. The unprotected handshake now joins AIDS-era unprotected sex as an irresponsible and perhaps immoral act. Politicians specializing in pressing the flesh are now at a disadvantage to teleprompter-readers and podium ranters. 

Social distancing directs us to space ourselves out — six feet seems the standard prescription — and pavements, parks, and shops are increasingly sites for a ballet of problematic evasion. Do we give a wide berth to the person coming toward us? Do we distance ourselves as a courtesy, a gesture signaling that we wish the other no ill? Or do we do it to avoid the risk they pose to us? How does the other interpret our gesture, and how do we interpret theirs? Is six-foot spacing seen as friendly or hostile? Absent fever and the dry cough, do we really see ourselves as risks to anyone else? How to do distance without disrespect? The elbow and foot things are hard enough, but, even without any kind of touching, think how much of what Goffman termed face-work calls for closer engagement. [3] These seem like trivial things, but they make up much of the texture of our social relationships. 

We include others through the choreography of touch; we exclude and disregard others by being out of touch, by keeping our distance. And we expel still others from our society by violent or abusive touching. Our relations with others are an intricate system of meaningful touchings and meaningful not-touchings. But intimate distances are also contagious distances. Friendly approach is countered by fearful avoidance. 

Home is now defined, for the time being, as safe — just on condition that it has not yet been virally violated; and family and domestic partners have also, for the time being, been defined as safe — just on condition that they too are thought free of infection. Social distancing can, again for the time being, be left outside the domestic threshold. 

So our home life is about to become yet another social experiment, as spending more time with the family moves from a face-saving excuse for the sacked to an everyday reality for many of us. What’s that going to be like? No one really knows. Will we rediscover conversation and family dinners with smart phones turned off or will we react to enforced co-presence by raging rows and sullen resentment? Will domestic violence increase? Will there be more babies or more divorces — or both? Will we take the opportunity to reflect on the meaning of life and the silliness of sweating the small stuff or will we retreat to our own rooms and spend more time on FaceTime? For amusement, will it be Bach or the Xbox, philosophy or Fortnite? Will it be baking or the boxed set? And even as we mean to care more for the loved ones in our homes, how will we exercise care for the aged parents who live alone or in assisted-living facilities and to whom our physical presence counts not as comfort but danger? 

If the kids are of school age, how will they amuse themselves or will they refuse to see any amusement at all in the situation? If they need to be home-schooled, will we remember how to solve quadratic equations and will we read, or pretend to reread, To Kill a Mockingbird? This could make for rediscovered family intimacy or for even more digital distance. COVID has already been pronounced a disaster for feminism. With childcare still overwhelmingly women’s responsibility, who is most practically able to work from home? The newspapers are now full of gorgeously illustrated counsel on how to prepare comfort food — for those who still know how to cook — but who is actually going to do it? A generation that knows Keep Calm and Carry On only as ironic tea-mugs or as fading memories of grandparents’ Good War will be tested on their panic-control and their composition of a Brave Face. The kids and the partner will be looking to us for stoicism and decisiveness, and only time will tell whether we’re up to tea-mug standards. These things, too, seem like domestic trivia, but the flow of the virus depends on how they are managed. Here, as the English novelist Geoff Dyer recently wrote in The New Yorker, “Don’t sweat the small stuff, runs the advice … Except the small stuff — so small it’s invisible — is the big stuff.” [4] These small things are large social experiments, and, again, we don’t know how it will all turn out.

And what about the homeless and prisoners? The chickens of decades of social indifference and austerity are now coming home to roost — for, even if hearts are hardened, their misery is a risk to the better-off. In the chaotic American health-care system, fear of the consequences of the virus also, and understandably, maps onto income and race: 83 percent of Hispanics now worry that they or someone in their family will get sick compared to 56 percent of whites; the same 56 percent of those with an annual income of more than $90,000 a year express worry about personal or family affliction compared to 68 percent of those with an income of less than $40,000 a year — though one can expect these figures to change as the crisis evolves. [5] When you’ve got no buffer-stock of capital and no space to store hoarded toilet paper, COVID represents something more than a health crisis. In the COVID world, passing by on the other side may still appeal to the uncaring, but it’s physically very difficult to do. Those wealthy people who have not yet fled to Caribbean islands and Cape Cod beach cottages now depend not only on themselves but on the poor to observe the new social disciplines. But ever-widening inequalities mean that moral demands, urging the acknowledgment of shared responsibility and experience, can sound more than a bit rich: as Dylan said, “When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.” We increasingly hear that “we’re all in the same boat,” but, if so, it’s clear that many believe they have no role in steering it.

And there are other social groups in which apparent indifference to distancing disciplines flourishes. The young are currently told that their risk of more than flu-like symptoms is lower than that of their elders, and many act as if they’re immune. In my neighborhood, high-risk older people “with underlying conditions” hunker down and explore options for digitizing their social life, while teen-agers pound down the pavements arm-in-arm. In Sydney, authorities have closed Bondi Beach as thousands of beachgoers — tourists as well as local adolescents — defied distancing nudges. Some Australians saw the “whole ordeal” as overreaction: “I think it’s excessive, we’re Australians, we go to the beach.” Miffed middle-aged New Yorkers post hundreds of pictures of distancing violators; in Berlin, the anxious angry do the same with “lockdown parties” and “corona speakeasies”: “The nightclubs are shut, we have to have fun somehow.” 

As the anthropologist Mary Douglas pointed out long ago, risk and, more pertinently, the perception of risk, isn’t uniformly distributed. [6] While the risk to the entity called society is real and increasingly quantifiable, the risk to specific groups and individuals evidently varies a lot — as does investment in care of the social whole. Just as the homeless sense that society does not care for them, so responses to COVID disciplines now seem to follow generational fault-lines. The generation that has pensions, and had full-time jobs, debt-free higher education, and mortgages, now asks those without hope to take care. In the US, the Great Comforter Donald Trump eloquently reminds the young of traditional family ties: “They don’t realize that — they’re feeling invincible, I don’t know if you felt invincible when you were very young … But they don’t realize that they can be carrying lots of bad things home to grandmother and grandfather and even their parents.” (Note the presidential presumption about housing arrangements.) Again, the sentiment of shared social responsibility has a tinny sound, and, when trotted out by Trump, can only be taken as one of his many unintentional jokes. 

The Bondi beachgoers and Berlin partygoers may not necessarily be ignoring biomedical expertise so much as responding to it in self-interested ways: “This doesn’t affect me.” Contrast that attitude toward risk with climate change, where the economy of risk-perception between the old and young is inverted. Perception of environmental risk is most acute among those who hope to inherit a habitable planet, while the more callous of the comfortable old act as if it’s “not their problem.” Greta Thunberg trusts scientific expertise and wants everyone to do so: “I don’t want you to listen to me, I want you to listen to the scientists,” she told the US Congress. With COVID and climate change, trust in expertise maps, awkwardly, onto personal risk: for the young, climate change is personal; for the old, COVID is personal. Here, and in many other instances, risk is refracted through both experience and interest. 

The credibility of COVID expertise also testifies to a feature of the relationship between lay sensibilities and scientific testimony. In the US, twice as many Republicans as Democrats think that the seriousness of the COVID crisis is “generally exaggerated” — 62 percent to 31 percent — and that difference in deference to expert authority translates into willingness to observe distancing discipline. When restaurants and theaters were still open, 53 percent of Democrats said that they would avoid them compared to 37 percent of Republicans. Trump, as ever, sees partisan Fake News at work, tweeting that “The Fake News Media and their partner, the Democrat Party, is doing everything within its semi-considerable power (it used to be greater!) to inflame the CoronaVirus situation, far beyond what the facts would warrant.” [7] Suspicion of scientific and medical expertise has been a strand in the new global populism, so the move from anti-vax sentiment and climate change denial to COVID complacency is seamless. [8] The COVID crisis is yet another rip in the fabric that linked lay belief to technical expertise. 

Where are we securely to locate expertise when there are so many voices claiming it? The president of the United States — seen to be speaking with the authority of governmental health agencies — has told Americans, successively, that COVID is nothing worse than seasonal flu; that the risk is low and that talking it up as serious is a Democrat plot; that it’s okay to go on handshaking; that COVID will disappear when the weather warms up; that the Food and Drug Administration had approved the anti-malarial chloroquine as a treatment for COVID, later tipping hydroxychloroquine combined with the anti-bacterial azithromycin; and that health-care workers should reuse face masks: “I’m, you know, a smart guy. I feel good about it.” Meantime, his vice president goes for the elbow bump and the government’s senior immunologist, standing next to Trump, is obliged awkwardly to disagree, re-interpret, or walk-back almost all of that. Trump is an idiot and a medical innocent, but not everyone knows that, and the effect of his utterances on the recognition of relevant expertise is disastrous. 

COVID is a social disease, too, because talk about its identity trades on social distributions of risk and threat. Who is a danger? Who threatens us? Whose virus is this? COVID appears not as an independent malevolent agent but as a weapon of those who mean us harm. True to form, Trump has politicized the virus. COVID is a “foreign virus”; specifically, it’s the “Chinese virus” — a photograph of his notes shows his own Sharpie replacement of “corona virus.” Challenged on his use of COVID to recharge America’s long-standing fear of the “Yellow Peril,” Trump doubled down. The virus clearly came from China, Trump blandly noted, describing and dog-whistling efficiently accomplished in the same breath. Trump, of course, has no monopoly on the weaponized notion of a “foreign virus”: a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson tweeted that “it might be [the] US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan.” [9] Meanwhile, Chinese Americans are abused on the streets as agents of infection; slurs about “Kung Flu” circulate; and a sociologist, observing the social divisions attending the pandemic, remarks that “the virus is not doing the dividing. The dividing is a function of what people are choosing to do with the virus. People are able to shift blame away from themselves or shift blame onto people they dislike.” [10] Sociologists and biomedical scientists urge us to accept that the virus is now ours, not theirs. Like past epidemics, COVID strains the social fabric. 

It is when threats are seen to come from outside of our society or from its margins that historians know we’ve been in this sort of place many times before. These are witchcraft beliefs. In the 14th century, the Jews caused the Black Death by poisoning wells; Jews were said to have a foul body odor when, in the Middle Ages and early modern period, bad smell was understood as a disease vehicle; old women have historically been witches, bringing death and disease, a role also played by the physically and mentally handicapped; the Great Plague of London in 1665 was down to the Catholics or, specifically, the Jesuits; the 1832 cholera in New York was blamed on Irish Catholics and an outbreak of smallpox in 1870s San Francisco was said to be the doing of Chinese migrants; in the late 19th and early 20th century, new waves of immigrants to the States, especially from Southern and Eastern Europe, brought disease and infection to the existing racial stock; and, in 2015, Trump justified his Great Wall on the southern border by saying that Mexicans were responsible for “tremendous infectious disease … pouring across the border.” It’s easy to figure foreigners and the marginalized as threats to our well-being, just because their identification as foreign and marginal has already encompassed the notion of threat. And it’s hard to figure friends and family as threats, just because their status as such already excludes the notion of threat. Expertise warns against these presumptions, and much of our ability to mitigate the crisis depends upon the credibility of biomedical expertise. But the light of expertise is refracted through long-standing and well-entrenched attitudes about where danger comes from and who means us harm. Expert information about the virus and its travels may not be enough; expertise urgently needs to understand, and be informed by, the conditions of its credibility. 

Finally, what kind of society is best able to cope with COVID? In 1980, the historian of technology Langdon Winner asked “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” [11] That is, are there certain technologies that, by their very nature or the necessary conditions of their working, dictate the social forms mobilized around them? Plato thought that a ship at sea was such a technology: a democratic order can’t effectively sail a ship and get it to arrive at its intended destination. You need a captain in charge. And it’s said that nuclear weapons and nuclear power-plants are inherently political in a similar way: you need strongly hierarchical systems of command and control to manage these technologies, to keep them safe, and to get them to function as they are supposed to. Winner was cautious in answering his own question, yet he rightly drew attention to the relationship between authoritarian politics and entities that aren’t thought to have politics

So is COVID inherently political in that way? The question isn’t just a matter of academic curiosity. The practical political lessons about coping with the virus that are being preached and increasingly listened to concern just that issue. One lesson proceeds from the global nature of the virus to the necessity of global information flow and globally coordinated action. We have the World Health Organization, but it’s likely that we’re now going to need global political institutions much more powerful than those that currently exist. Will these emerge? We don’t know, but this too is a social experiment on an enormous scale. Then there is the lesson being drawn from China, South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore — or, more precisely, from what’s widely said about their reactions to COVID. For some commentators, the lesson is that contagion of this sort requires authoritarian responses. Just as nuclear weapons necessitate authoritarian social practices, so COVID is labeled as an inherently political disease, necessitating top-down control and the radical restriction of civil liberties. Our political responses to COVID are yet another vast social experiment. The fear is that COVID will be seized on as an excuse for pushing authoritarianism even further along — necessitating armies on the street and committees of public safety to protect public health and adding democracy to the virus’s victims. 

So the biggest questions that the COVID crisis puts to us are whether we can recognize genuine expertise and act on it, whether we can repair some of the damage done by austerity and widening inequality, whether we actually do care for each other, whether we can manage our way through the crisis without inviting the extension of authoritarianism, and whether we can invent, rather than nostalgically restore, a society where we are in touch without touching. If we are to be in the same boat, then it’s a boat we may, together, have to build.

¤

Steven Shapin is Franklin L. Ford Research Professor in the History of Science at Harvard University.

¤

Featured image: “Lovers II” by Kenneth_Fleming is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

¤

[1] Charles E. Rosenberg, “What Is an Epidemic? AIDS in Historical Perspective,” Daedalus 118, no. 2 (Spring, 1989), 1–17; David S. Jones, “History in a Crisis — Lessons for Covid-19,” New England Journal of Medicine, published online March 12, 2020: https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp2004361

[2] Erving Goffman, Behavior in Public Places: Notes on the Public Organization of Gatherings (New York: The Free Press, 1963), esp. Part 4; Deborah Schiffrin, “Handwork as Ceremony: The Case of the Handshake,” Semiotica 12 (1974), 189-202; Peter M. Hall and Dee Ann Spencer Hall, “The Handshake as Interaction,” Semiotica 45 (1983), 249–264.

[3] Erving Goffman, Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior (New York: Pantheon Books, 1967), pp. 5–45.

[4] Geoff Dyer, “The Existential Inconvenience of Coronavirus,” The New Yorker, March 23, 2020: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/03/23/the-existential-inconvenience-of-coronavirus

[5] Ronald Brownstein, “Red and Blue America Aren’t Experiencing the Same Pandemic,” The Atlantic, March 20, 2020: https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/03/how-republicans-and-democrats-think-about-coronavirus/608395/; Liz Hamel et al., “KFF Coronavirus Poll: March 2020”: https://www.kff.org/global-health-policy/poll-finding/kff-coronavirus-poll-march-2020/ (published online March 17, 2020); https://www.people-press.org/2020/03/18/u-s-public-sees-multiple-threats-from-the-coronavirus-and-concerns-are-growing/

[6] Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966); Douglas, Risk and Blame: Essays in Cultural Theory (London: Routledge, 1992), Part 1; Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky, Risk and Culture: An Essay on the Selection of Technological and Environmental Dangers (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983).

[7] https://www.marketwatch.com/story/republicans-are-far-more-likely-than-democrats-to-think-the-coronavirus-threat-is-exaggerated-new-survey-finds-2020-03-10; https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/18/politics/republican-media-trust-coronavirus/index.html

[8] Steven Shapin, “Is There a Crisis of Truth?” Los Angeles Review of Books, December 2, 2019: https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/is-there-a-crisis-of-truth/

[9] https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/17/asia/trump-chinese-virus-tweet-intl-hnk/index.html

[10] Jeff Green, “Covid-19 is Becoming the Disease That Divides Us: By Race, Class and Age”: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-03-21/covid-19-divides-u-s-society-by-race-class-and-age

[11] Langdon Winner, “Do Artefacts Have Politics?” Daedalus 109, no. 1 (Winter, 1980), 121–136.

 

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