Things as simple as hugging a friend, talking face-to-face, socialising freely, and travelling have been restricted. Even as social distancing measures are slowly relaxed, hesitation and anxiety remain. The situation has had a profound effect on our social relations.
Two broad and inter-related aspects of social experience are to be distinguished. First, there are our face-to-face relations with others, including particular individuals and people in general. Our interactions with other people shape our feelings, thoughts, and activities in all manner of ways: the pleasure we gain from our surroundings, whether we feel at ease or unsettled in a situation, the narratives through which we interpret our lives, how we regulate our moods, whether we anticipate the future with hope or dread. Interaction with another person can nurture a sense of comfort and hope or, by contrast, a feeling of discomfort and vulnerability. This applies even to brief, mundane interactions with strangers—whether someone smiles while walking past or glares at you with apprehension as they hurriedly cross to the other pavement. To be experienced as a potential conversational partner is quite different from being experienced as a potential source of infection.
Many dimensions of interpersonal experience have been affected by lockdowns and other social distancing measures. In some cases, the effects are more positive: some people have been brought together; friendships have been rekindled without the usual distractions; and rewarding pastimes have been discovered or rediscovered.
A strong sense of solidarity and expressions of gratitude towards front-line key workers in different sectors have also emerged. With this, questions arise of where and to what extent we have been able to adapt successfully to the new situation and what, if anything, remains missing or even irreplaceable.
We share a world with others and much of its meaning comes from this shared-ness. With social distancing, much of this background structure is changing; norms of interaction that were once taken as given are gone.
At times, there is a sense of not knowing what to do anymore, how to interpret and interact with other people. The rulebook is not only new but also strangely incomplete. There are experiences of anxious uncertainty and of absence and loss, as our habitual patterns of expectation are repeatedly challenged by socially distanced public spaces.
Various elements of pandemic experience are characterised by suspicion, uncertainty, and doubt. We may distrust the air we breathe and the surfaces we touch, while strangers suddenly seem unpredictable sources of potential danger.
This dismantling of the everyday inevitably leads to a pervasive breakdown of habits. Usual socialising in the evenings or the weekend, or the morning chaos, organised and punctuated our lives into a familiar tempo. Previous schedules have been largely removed from daily life, resulting in changes to our experience of time. The loss of norms, routines, and structure alters our sense of how time passes. Some people report that time feels like an undifferentiated flow, an experience that is disorienting and dispiriting.
COVID-19 is not just killing the ‘animal’ but also the ‘social’ in the ‘social animal’ called man. The pandemic is destroying the society as we have known and it may not be any constructive destruction but a destructive destruction.
(First published 10 August 2020)
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