The New Responsible

24 March 2020
Day 9 of Physical Distancing 

In the midst of a physical distancing, how do we negotiate our own isolation circles with others’ circles? With gatherings limited by lockdown, quarantine, and self-isolation, most of us are (or ought to be) limiting in-person contact with as many people as possible in order to stop the spread of COVID-19. But, in a city where shared living spaces are common, combined with the salient reminder that we are social creatures, making exceptions to see significant others or collaborators or caretakers can be a weighted decision. How do you tell your roommate that you don’t feel comfortable with them bringing their partner/lover into your shared home right now? How do you start the conversation with a loved one about needing to work with a collaborator, in person, in order to deliver on a project and earn a living? How do you bring on a caretaker for longer-term support who may as well be a complete stranger? At the crux of each of these situations is wanting to be the most responsible at a time when each of us holds different understandings about what that responsibility looks like. Hand-washing and smaller social circles are no longer enough; those are non-negotiable at this point. 

These are unprecedented times for making moral judgments beyond our individual selves,  and we ought to give these complicated situations more than just a cursory calculation about what’s at risk. Part of what’s difficult about this pandemic is that we’re fighting the invisible: the virus is too small to see with the unaided human eye and, arguably, the socioeconomic inequalities that make certain populations more vulnerable have been hidden in the structures of capitalism and neoliberalism. Both are invisible, and both are causing society as we know it to fall apart. We don’t know what’s going to happen or when this is all going to end. But that’s precisely the reason that we ought to have these sticky conversations. Since there’s so much we don’t know about the virus and its trajectory, we ought to clarify what we can know so that we have options for recourse if/when we become affected. 

The Fourth Degree 

Last week a lover contacted me about who was in my circle of contacts during this isolation period. They were referring to who I was seeing in person, and it was a moment for us to come to terms with whether or not we wanted to continue seeing each other while in lockdown. But before we could answer this question together, they first explained to me everyone who was implicated in their social circle: they share an apartment with a roommate and they’re working with a collaborator to build a prototype. Roommate would not be seeing anybody as they work from home and their significant other lives overseas, while Collaborator was laid off from their other job and is poised to process Employment Insurance. But Collaborator’s extended circles warranted additional explanation: Collaborator had this same conversation about isolation circles with their partner, and the two had agreed to continue seeing each other during isolation. Collaborator’s partner happens to live with their immediate family, and their sibling seems to be brashedly clutching onto the myth of invincibility. As I take this all in, I wonder if this is what the media have now termed covidiot. I’ve never met the sibling, let alone the partner, so I’ll never know. Having traced this network of social connectectivity, I wanted to confirm the connection: so it is your collaborator’s, partner’s, sibling who is putting us at risk? Yes. Because of proximity. Yes. And indeed, it is this kind of 4th degree of separation that can blindsight us as asymptomatic carriers. 

Knowing this, Lover proceeded, do we still want to see each other right now? In retrospect, what I appreciated most about the question was that it gave me an opportunity to consider all of the stakes at hand — and all of the potential people that our decision could affect — without having to make a judgment about them or the collective ‘us,’ whatever we may be right now. And though I am fortunate to not be immunocompromised, I’m grateful that the onus was never on me to self-disclose my status to be able to talking about who’s in our respective spheres of contact. And, by unpacking the nested, extended relations of each circle, everyone from every degree of separation was included in the calculations for communal risk of infection. That, my lover said, was the new, responsible thing to do. 

I’m not proud of how this next part of our conversation went because it demonstrates how times of exhaustion, anxiety, or the mix of the two can summon the very thing we’re trying to move away from. Lover asked me about who was in my isolation circle right now, and I answered that there was one other person besides them. And who was in my friend’s isolation circle? they continued. I knew that my friend recently went through a breakup, but that the two were still helping each other with practical things like rides to the market. And who was in the ex’s isolation circle? I freeze and feel the need to defend my friend’s situation, but I don’t know who’s in the ex’s sphere of contact. I don’t know if the ex lives with a covidiot or is one himself. I trust my friend and her judgment but I know not the specifics of their breakup, and for all I know they could’ve separated because their values don’t align. Though I had good reason to believe my friend observed safe distancing practices, I resign to the fact that I could not guarantee that her ex did the same. By extension, I couldn’t guarantee that Lover would be safe from exposure. 

Lover requests that I clarify what those relations might be that surround my friend’s ex. Defensive, I retort: And what will you do with that information, after I clarify those relations and report them back to you? I don’t know, they respond. It’s all so new. 

I hold a long pause, exhausted by the weight of the conversation. I almost drop my phone as I sit in my kitchen, steeped in the calculus of collective stakes. I wish that we were having this conversation in person, sharing tea and thoughts to lighten the mood.

Collectivism 

While under quarantine, I recently watched the film Double Happiness (1993) in which a very young Sandra Oh tries to navigate her identity between fulfilling the wish of her Hong Kong parents and her adult life in Canada. Throughout the film — and many similar stories of first generation Asian experiences — the family vets a handful of potential matches for Sandra Oh’s character, identifying every person, privilege, and prospect tied to suitors who will supposedly make her future both fortuitous and secure. It is a trope that is based on some modicum of reality, and watching this film reminded me of just how tethered and integrated these kinship circles can be. I’d experienced this kind of community cohesion in Japan, and the integrity of its social fabric can be both resilient in times of duress as it can be suffocating when prying questions extend their reach into the nethers of personal life. It is the double-edged sword of collectivism: we are in this together, but you must also listen to what we all have to say. 

I’m specifically thinking about collectivism at a time when #flattenthecurve dictates the media messaging of today; it is, after all, the rationale behind isolation and distancing in the first place. As one meme threatens: “in case people haven’t realized it yet – the longer you don’t comply with social distancing, the longer we’re going to have to do it” and similar phrases echo in Twitter feeds and humorous reinterpretations like ‘do it or else [the rest of 2020 will be like this]’. So it isn’t surprising to me that parallel to the coronavirus concerns, folks are airing out their qualms about climate change and anti-vaxxers because those are pending problems that we’ll need to collectively address too, perhaps sooner than we might be ready for.

We, the individualists of the West, do not have a frame of mind for this sort of collective action, likely because we can be so divisive along ideological lines. In a press briefing yesterday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau warned that “enough is enough” and chastised folks for gathering in public spaces over the weekend. When bombarded with questions from the press about the Emergencies Act (which is a federal override that trumps all provincial decrees), the Prime Minister repeatedly affirmed the potential of evoking such powers but emphasized his reluctance for doing so by calling upon Canadian citizens to “do their part.” He pivoted each interview question back on the individual to highlight their agency: it is every citizen’s duty to observe social distancing right now, and “staying home is your way to serve.” Duty and service evoke wartime conscription, something that may be the only schematic that resonates with the Western imaginary of collective stakes. Nothing unites us more than our human vulnerabilities, which acutely affect some more than others, and it’ll require all of our connective efforts to preclude this virus from causing too much irreparable damage. 

In trying to imagine collective ethics, feminist thinker Alexis Shotwell argues against individualism “because it constitutes ethical success as personal purity [which] is simultaneously inadequate, impossible, and politically dangerous for shared projects of living on earth” (2016, 107). To succeed as an individual is no longer a measure of success. We are all tangled, scrambling together in a 3-million-legged race. We are in this together while physically apart; that’s why I’m deliberately calling this ‘physical distancing’ instead of ‘social distancing.’ We ought to connect with our communities, and really account for them, now more than ever, for that is what is meant by being accountable. 

Where We Stand, With Whom

Being responsible has never been a one-dimensional box to tick off; it just means that those with the wherewithal to act responsibly may not have considered the full range of who we could or ought to be responsible towards. From a collectivist point of view, reaching back to the fourth degree of separation is an accepted practice because of the acknowledgement that risks and benefits are shared. It shows that our interests are interconnected and compounded. In contrast, the paradigm of individualism considers that reach to be an invasive control mechanism that borders on surveillance. It’s considered Draconian and a threat to civil liberties. We’re just not used to thinking that way because we’re still clutching onto the myth of self-sufficiency. But we are interdependent, and we need not look further than the list of ‘essential services’ personnel to come to terms with our reliance on others. 

We are not equally vulnerable, but we are not equally immune either, so while individual actions absolutely matter, they need to be considered within the context of greater, multiple, and overlapping collectives. To be sure, what I’m trying to describe here goes beyond what are politically defined as communism or socialism; I’m putting words to a mindset of thinking ahead in time, thinking across in spaces we (cannot temporarily) share, with people we may or may not know or directly encounter. It’s an indirect commitment to thwarting the possibility of harm. It’s a way of trying to imagine how to move forward when we may be feeling trapped, untethered, or worse, threatened by the latency of infection. We need to update how we think about social responsibility in order to build more trust with the exceptional others we let into our homes, our lives in moments of crises. To do that, we’ll need to extend our capacity to respond, safely and ethically, by knowing where we stand, with whom, and to what degree of separation.

Many thanks to the brilliant and compassionate folks who helped me think through this problematic, and all of your conspirators and collaborators who have shaped how you think.

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