As a traveller who lives between the UK and mainland Europe, now being in a half-locked down Berlin, I can see the myriad ways in which the Corona virus will accelerate changes to lifestyle and biographies – changes that were about to come anyway with Brexit among other issues, changes that question our understanding of what solidarity many mean in numerous ways.
I was still in Manchester when the virus started to accelerate in Europe, and listened with some horror to the theory that all that was needed was herd immunity, which may mean an awful lot of deaths but hey, the general population can be asked to suffer a bit for the benefit of all. Only. it is not the general population (whatever that may mean anyway), but it are those who live in precarious circumstances, those who cannot stay at home as they have no sick pay; those who for various reason feel they cannot afford to follow all the official health advise, who will suffer most and pay the price (well, not unlike in wars with which the Corona crisis is now often compared). Much has been written on how Corona will expose and widen inequalities in society – in contrast to what others have said about epidemics and likewise events, including wars, that they actually flatten inequality – a dynamic I speak about in a Masters course I teach on Global Inequalities and Social Development at the University of Manchester, I might have to rethink this message for the next academic year.
I was worried for a while that I would not make it out in time before some shut down was coming my way while still in the UK – but I needed not to have worried, as the UK response was too little too late, as many scientist who actually know something about epidemiology (instead of being behavioural economist or the like) now agree.
So here I am in Berlin, where a very different approach has taken hold. While one can endlessly debate the pros and cons of school closures and others shut-down measures, what seems striking to me is that Germany, a country with comparatively high confirmed infection rates (12327 at the time of writing, the 4th highest number) has a very low death rate (28 thus far), compared for example to the UK (2642 confirmed infections and 72 deaths) – I am not sure what the reasons are for this and how much they might be connected to bleeding the NHS dry over the last decades, but it is a puzzle to note. And reports that NHS staff lack protective equipment are not very reassuring.
But whatever the different political approaches across Europe – and it is, in many ways, disheartening to see they vary so much, as one would have hoped for a more general consensus, even if measures of course need to be tailored to individual countries in a way that respects how the pandemic has unfolded in them. Even though, countries like South Korea and Singapore among others, seem to teach us some general truth, not least in relation to wide-spread testing
A key element in Europe’s response, including the UK, is what is now almost everywhere called social distancing. I find this term very troubling indeed. In times of a global pandemic, it is solidarity what one would think is most needed, globally and locally, and at all levels in between.
What we really want is keeping a physical distance between people – be it 1.5 or 2 meters – I am not quite sure where the different ideal distance comes from and it seems puzzling that even here there is no universal agreement. Thus yes, physical distancing by all means, but social distancing is exactly the wrong thing to do. Social closeness does not need to involve being in the same physical space at all, and even if so does not need hugging or touching, even if in our cultures these are common expressions of affection.
But maybe there is more to the use of the misnomer of social distancing than meets the eye: In many ways, some of the measures of so-called social distancing are, well, elite issues. Not only in relation to those who work for example in the gig economy and can not afford such means (at least as long as businesses still operate), but also in creating the phantasy that the virus can be contained by keeping people separated and behind some form of a border. Actual border closures have now been put in place even between a number of Schengen countries and beyond – a sheer nonsense in many ways and unnecessary if people would head the sensible advise not to travel unnecessarily, and when travelling, in particular on public transport, it does not make a difference if one does so in one country or across a border.
And then there are communities on the European continent to whom the advise of social distancing and washing hands must sound like a bad and cruel joke: Those for example in the refugee camps on the Greek islands, like Moira on Lesbos, as well as on the European mainland, cramped into accommodation at close range and with too little water to go around at the best of times. Not to speak of refugees, migrants and other population groups in camps or informal settlements worldwide, where health and living conditions are often precarious over long periods of time.
What we needs is not social distancing but solidarity with those who struggle to adhere to even the most basic measures the epidemiologists and health professionals tell us to adhere to. Solidarity that provides the physical space needed to remain safe, the water and soap needed to wash hands, and a means to live a life with some dignity, in the times of Corona and beyond. We might have got a glimpse that this may be possible when some European countries, not least Germany, opened not only their borders but many people opened hearts and minds to the refugees who arrived in 2015 – even if that is now seen as a mere footnote in subsequent history where border closures, nationalism and a doggy deal with Turkey have taken to upper hand.
Crises may be devastating when they strike, but they are always opportunities as well, for better or worse, as Naomi Klein reminds us when talking about disaster (or corona-) capitalism: they can lead to an even more unequal world where those who are at the top can ignore the vast majority of humanity. There are reports of some of the very rich escaping to bunkers on remote islands, or in less extreme form go via private jet to a place perceived as a safe haven, or a remote second home – just avoid mingling with the rest of humanity, if you can afford it, seems to be the message. This is social distancing taken to the extreme.
But a pandemic like COVID-19 does also provide an opportunity to think again, to remember we are all humans and while the virus affects people differently, not only based on age and medical preconditions, but maybe more importantly based on class, wealth and status, it also is an equalizer in the sense that it changes everybody’s life, if we acknowledge it or not. This is where the phantasy that to control borders, those of nation states and those between people, will bring a lasting solution ends. At the end of the day, we need to survive as humanity on the planet, as humans who are first and foremost social beings. It is ultimately up to all of us if and how we show solidarity in the times of Corona (and hopefully in its aftermath when other more pertinent threats to humanity like the climate emergency dominate the headlines again) – and avoid falling for the trap of social distancing. Give physical space to everybody (and wash those hands) – but at the same time, keep your heart open, would make for so much better advise.