Social distance as ‘the gift’ in the #Covid-19 response?

I wrote the below on Tuesday night, so it’s a bit out-of-date now.

Social distancing has flown into my vocabulary this year, as a tangible way I can contribute to not making the current pandemic worse in my hometown of Melbourne, Australia. However, it has had me questioning what existing structures provide us with options for acting on and thinking about things, and how problematic these may be.

Leaders in press conferences and images shared on social media by my friends point out that social distancing is not about protecting me, or those ‘close’ to me, but about avoiding the health system in my country getting overwhelmed. This has often been illustrated with a graph of two curves of different gradients, with a steep short one rushing over a horizontal dotted line of the health system capacity and a flatter one remaining under or just poking over. While the science of ‘modelling’ is clearly evoked for authorisation, I knew now was not the time to question it based on this seemingly flimsy dotted line of health system capacity when I saw @amdar1ing’s #CATteningthecurve. catteningthecurve

Memes, like #CATteningthecurve, share information and play on sources of amusement. It’s hardly surprising that they not only play a part in shaping the pandemic, but can help bring some comic relief too. In settings like Australia, I think there’s momentum in anything true enough to joke about. The idea with momentum here is that we owe society to stay home.

‘The gift’ offers a way of thinking about what is owed in society, as many of us learnt through encountering Mauss’s framing in first year anthropology. The gift is not only about what you give, but also what you receive. Receiving creates debt to be repaid through further giving, but this is forging relationships and so society. It is easy to see in formal cycles of ritualised exchange, like the Kula. Whether formally required in tutorials, or informally over drinks, the logic of the gift has also be found in many of the cultural scripts we rely on for not only indicating that we care about and value others but perpetuating social institutions (e.g. who is paying for dinner).

Have the culturally recognised ways of building relationships through reciprocity been interrupted by things changing?

Here in Australia, usually we are called to be better members of society through getting out more. The ‘older persons’ that I spent time with as part of my PhD fieldwork in the suburb of Port Melbourne were often called to participate in social events as part of taking on the responsibility of avoiding that terrible situation of days or weeks passing before your body is found alone at home. Even when the novel coronavirus came on the scene, of course we were called to address the awful xenophobia by going to a ‘local Chinese restaurant’.

Not anymore?

Unless you are a healthcare worker, perhaps social distancing is sort of the only gift worth giving at the moment. This is a bit of a flip. [Sure, there’s the need for the other essential workers and whoever is making, delivering and restocking the toilet paper amongst other things.]

Staying home seems like a manageable activity for most of us, but we know it is not always the case. Family violence and depression risks can go up. Homelessness can include people not housed at all, but also those couch surfing or in overcrowded dwellings. These reminders are not absent from media I have seen, although I cannot name a single policy response I have seen being put forward. I suppose these experiences of violence, suffering and the impossibility of following ‘normality’ are ones we are used to in society; they are already part of the structural violence our society provides the scripts to live with.

Being able to fund staying home has seen some policy response… if you are staying home for certain reasons treated as valid. There is a waiving of waiting times for those who need to be quarantined because of this virus and who meet the social security payment requirements. As campaigners have pointed out, it hardly seems like a fair deal if you cannot afford to keep your home if you are ordered to stay there for [what has been defined as relevant to] the good of the community.

One thing that has been said by the government of Australia is that the response to this pandemic is not going to be used to get the rise in the rate of the payment for those who are unemployed that many have been campaigning on for years.

Maybe there’s not that much change… yet.

Mauss’s work on ‘the gift’ ends on a clearly Keynesian note, and it was used two decades ago by Hage (2000) to reflect on the impoverished conceptualisation of mutual obligation in Australia. Hage (2000: 35) points out that to say ‘you don’t get something for nothing’ to justify those who receive social security payments being required to comply with activities and a particular attitude it misses an important ethical component. Rather, as society we have an ethical obligation to each person; ‘giving to any human other is always giving back since we would have received the gift of their presence the very moment we encountered them.’ The gift has already been given, and we are called into this relationship that demands we see that person as having a life that should be liveable.

Okay, so perhaps the physical connotations of ‘encountering’ are problematic here when we should be at home #CATteningthecurve, but life is messy.

I want to do my bit not to make things worse. I think that means being part of thinking about how new practices come into our existing cultural scripts, as we might not agree with the ethical parameters of what we gain or lose.

We can also think about how we want things to be. What can be done differently from those hegemonic cultural scripts that are part of our world where something like staying home is unsafe or impossible for many people? Maybe @lilacisms is right that it’s two weeks from the 14 March 2020 for academics to be ‘writing “queering the quarantine: towards radical forms of queer isolation”’, but I’m sure that it is already being put into practice.

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