Social Distancing

We speak of social distancing, yet of course that is not what is really going on. The transmission of the corona virus is being slowed down – or so experts are telling us and why would we not believe them? – by a package of measures being imposed upon us:

..staying at home, keeping a distance of 1.5m, no handshaking, no kissing or hugging, neither accessing the beach or visiting the tip in large numbers nor leaning over others to grab the last rolls of toilet paper off the shelf at the local grocery store. Then why is it called social distancing? As clearly this is a matter of physical distancing.

Obviously one might think: in this distancing by the entire body, by mouth, by hand, by breath and saliva, we will effectively get socially distanced. However is that indeed what we see happening? Does physical distancing lead to social distancing?

Only partially: because I do no longer meet my clients, colleagues, my (grand)children and friends live, we live our lives at a greater distance from each other.

However, I think I mainly see the opposite happening: now keeping our distance physically, our social relationships get a creative boost: we skype and zoom to our heart’s content, all day long we send each other horrifying and hilarious movies to lift our spirits. Here at home, we had breakfast with the entire family by simultaneously establishing from three places an online connection by speech and image, we attach savory snacks to the doorknobs of those who are socially isolated and from a lifting platform in front of her window in the elderly home, granny is being cheered at and receiving handblown kisses.

Commercial enterprises alter their production process and deliver, sometimes even for free, things the community now needs most: cleansing gel, face masks, respiratory equipment. Undergraduates provide free tutoring from a distance to high school students. A retired lady in our neighbourhood put up a sign in her front lawn, reading ‘sidewalk stories at 17:00h’ and some fourteen children came to listen, seated on the chairs and stools they brought along.

Keeping a social distance? I wouldn’t say so. The movie house provides us with free access from home to the most wonderful movies, movies that would otherwise now show in the cinemas. On the internet musicians offer their as of yet unperformed music for free and a professor opens up his lectures. As close as this they never came before.

We could interpret social distancing in a different way: corona forces us to get away from our daily doings and so we unknowingly, yet clearly may come to see what otherwise we would not perceive, simply by finding ourselves being too close to things: how dependent we all are on each other, how nourishing social traffic is to us and how we are all living in a network of relationships which is beneficial to us and providing us with an identity, from granny to teacher.
Naught autonomy – being yourself by the grace of relationships at most.

Then along with this sudden awareness comes concern: those relationships are delicate, precious and without maintaining them, they will go to the dogs. We can’t have that now. And the incantation ritual gets started, slowly at first, and then head over heels: we do want those relationships, we do want togetherness, solidarity, for free if we have to. Corona: that’s fine, just as long as we stay together, and in one piece.

About the author: Andries Baart

Andries Baart (1952) is Professor (emeritus) Presence and Care, now Visiting Professor to Utrecht Medical Centre, department of psychiatry (The Netherlands) as well as attached to North-West University (South Africa).

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