Published: 20 March 2020, 14:56
In these times of the coronavirus crisis, ‘Social Distancing’ is called for: all people should refrain from shaking hands, maintain a safe distance of at least two metres from each other and stay at home if possible. But what consequences does this have for our life as a community? This is explained by Assistant Professor Simon Runkel who, as a social geographer at the Institute of Geography of the University of Jena, studies questions of social coexistence from a spatial perspective. Read on to find out what society is particularly reliant on in times of crisis and why “Social Distancing” can be easily misunderstood.
What is meant by the term ‘Social Distancing’?
The term ‘Social Distancing’ describes a regulation of interpersonal contact. A greater distance is intended to make infections from person to person more difficult, thus reducing the intensity of the spread of the coronavirus.
Social coexistence is essentially dependant on proximity. If we visualise societies spatially, we realise that they involve complex interactions – on top of each other, next to each other another and with each other. The poet John Donne wrote “No man is an island” – and by the way, he was seriously ill at the time. Social life flourishes where we exchange thoughts and stories, gifts and goods. There are different distance ratios within interpersonal relationships, which can vary according to place, social customs and personal perception. If we get too close to someone on public transport, then we perceive this as uncomfortable. The author Elias Canetti spoke of how, when people voluntarily gather together in a crowd, the “fear of touch” is eliminated. Incidentally, that explains why major events – places where large crowds of people meet – were banned first.
In the current crisis, the normality of our daily life becomes a danger due to the overlapping of our spheres of action and the associated physical proximity. Since there are many public spaces in our society where we come into close proximity, retreating to our private places is the most effective way of preventing infections. Thus, our living spaces represent islands. In socio-spatial terms, an isolation of people to these islands is necessary. Such measures of health-related segregation, meaning the separation of people, have existed since ancient times and were already mentioned in the Bible.
Ultimately, though, we are talking about the isolation of the human body and the many atmospheric traces that it leaves behind in public spaces. This does not actually concern the creation of social distance, so that the term “Social Distancing” can in a certain sense be seen as misleading. However, the reason the term is so commonly used is that we always understand social coexistence to include spatial proximity. Luckily, technologies exist today that allow us to be close to each other even without physical contact. Even though at this time physical proximity must be restricted, we should go to even greater efforts to find creative ways to establish social proximity through communication technology and digital spaces.
What is the best way of implementing “Social Distancing”? Should we, for example, visit friends and relatives?
“Social Distancing” is currently being recommended by experts and we would do well to increase the physical distance between us and our fellow human beings. Consequently, we should carefully weigh up the necessity of visits to friends and relatives and, when in doubt, we should rely on the various technological means of communication. However, there is also the opportunity to start conversations with neighbours and discover new solidarity-based communities. “Social Distancing” therefore does not mean that we have to behave in an anti-social manner. Social distance is always important for a society to function – in everyday life, too, we are urged not to step on someone's toes. Keeping your distance is a form of care and, especially in these times, it is vital for the survival of many people.
If our action space currently restricted, it also means that at this time, we have stopped having contact with those people who are not such close friends. In our daily lives, we normally also come into contact with people who are not part of our social environment or circle of friends. I therefore recommend that in the days to come, we take the time to call people that we otherwise possibly never phone, but whom we often meet in our daily lives. In the weeks to come, it will be those familiar strangers that we will miss the most.
What are the social consequences if a large number of people suddenly behave in this way?
We are currently a society in quarantine. During the pandemic, we come to understand that the human being – as Donne writes – is not an island, but that the isolation of individuals to these islands must be strongly enforced. This affects people in our society in very different ways. We cannot take our own ways of dealing with the situation as a benchmark for how strongly other people are affected. For many, the isolation to their own island, for example the retreat into “gated communities”, is a privilege. We must not forget that there are many people who, for various reasons, live very secluded lives, closed off from social interactions, and who can, in times like these, be easily forgotten.
There are many people who rely on closeness. People who rely on others not isolating themselves. This is particularly the case for elderly people who depend on care. There are people who have no refuge, such as the homeless. Some have no refuge that offers them the necessary security. For many people in our society, the home is, for various reasons, not a place that they can stand to stay in for long periods. This can be because they have very little space. It can also be because of domestic violence.
Moreover, the media have currently lost sight of the fact that there are people on the outer borders of the European Union who are waiting for asylum under dire conditions that threaten their very existence. We are seeing more and more borders being closed around the world. “Immunisation” is suddenly taking on a serious geopolitical significance. Even within the EU there is currently little evidence of coordinated solidarity. I observe this development with a great deal of concern, as there is a risk that the pandemic will now be used to justify the rejection of people seeking refuge. Social inequalities are always particularly visible during a crisis.
In the coming period, it will be important that we display solidarity and – if possible – engage in voluntary work. From isolation comes responsibility. Currently, our society is surviving because many people are generously working in hospitals, doctors’ practices, home care services and critical infrastructure. The savings resulting from the privatisation of the health care system in recent years could prove to be a problem today. The number of hospital beds has fallen continuously in recent years and it is not the private health care providers who are now on the front line. This will certainly be something to be discussed after the crisis, because the real social distance is due to social inequality. In times of crisis, society depends on solidarity.
How does “Social Distancing” affect your professional environment and how do you deal with it on a personal level?
As a scientist in the public sector, I am in a very privileged position. I can easily work from home, will continue to be paid and am grateful for the fact that I live very comfortably. This cannot be compared with the situation of people who are now worried about their jobs or their income. I am also concerned about relatives and friends who belong to risk groups. And I am in close contact with colleagues who are in non-European countries. There is particular concern in African countries.
I remain in contact with my team and we have all switched to working from home. I have had to cancel to trip to China and conferences have also already been cancelled. The University of Jena has a very good information management. At the institute, we are already thinking about the effects the crisis will have on teaching during the summer semester. We have also had to postpone exams. This is a challenging situation for many students and we are already considering possible solutions.
Some people fear the loneliness that “Social Distancing” could bring. Do you have any advice on what can be done to counter this?
There is a difference between loneliness and being alone. Today’s society is marked by an increase in ingularization. Living alone is now more widely accepted and more prevalent. However, this way of life is not always chosen voluntarily: in sociological terms, one can also talk of “social isolation”. It is assumed that factors such as poverty, living alone, the relationship status, mobility restrictions, and difficulties living independently for emotional or physical reasons reinforce each other and lead to a higher risk of social isolation. If socio-spatial isolation is added through “Social Distancing”, it can be very serious for certain people, in particular the elderly. It is therefore advisable to call those friends we have not heard from in a while.
However, we should assume that this is a temporary situation and that we can use this time in a creative way. I can also recommend something to read: “The Plague” by Albert Camus is very appropriate for our turbulent times and is a very contemporary plea for solidarity.
Runkel, S. (2019): Eine Kulturgeschichte des Crowd Management in gebauten Versammlungsstätten. Soziomechanische, affektive, technokratische und mediale Sicherheits- und Kontrollregimes. In: Groneberg, C. (Hrsg.): Veranstaltungskommunikation. Springer VS, Wiesbaden. 129–167.
Runkel, S. u. J. Everts (2017): Geographien sozialer Krisen / Krisen sozialer Geographien. In: Geographica Helvetica, Volume 72, S. 475–482, https://doi.org/10.5194/gh-72-475-2017