Lenin once said, “There are decades in which nothing happens; and there are weeks in which decades happen.” Never has this quotation been more pertinent than now, during the Covid-19 pandemic. In just a matter of weeks, as a result of the rapid spread of the virus across the world , the global economy has been restructured, health services in even the most developed nations have been crippled and overwhelmed, billions of people are living under lockdown and social and cultural life has been put on standby. Human interaction has been upended beyond imagination.
Under this new regime of social distancing, handshakes are haram. Social kissing is regarded as “dangerous.” Hugging? Forget about it! Hook-ups? Are you out of your mind? Even sunbathing by yourself in the park is viewed as a dangerous, anti-social activity by the authorities. The order is to stay home, quarantine and chill, maybe FaceTime to catch up or play some Red Dead Redemption 2 on the Playstation 4. But if we must leave our homes, either to go shopping to scavenge for fuseli, or for our state-permitted exercise, we must stay a minimum distance of six feet apart. One of the ironies of this crisis has been the development of an act of mass social solidarity that is paradoxically based on staying away from each other. We deliberately swerve wildly to avoid each other in public, even to the point of crossing the street, not out of disgust, but as an act of care.
Like 9/11, the Iraq war and the 2008 financial crisis, this pandemic is one of the epochal moments that will define the twenty-first century and hammers another nail into the coffin of end-of-history liberal triumphalism. Its mark will be left on economic and social life for a generation, and its meaning only fully grasped long afterwards.
The virus is expediting already on-going trends, such as working from home, online deliveries, e-learning and digital education. The NHS is holding GP appointments online. Zoom is the favoured app for work meetings and conferences. Universities are switching to online lectures. Courts are holding trials and hearings over Skype. Even funerals are being held remotely.
Technological developments have increasingly enabled us to do things without human contact: apps allow you to order food and drink in a bar or restaurant, without having to interact with a waiter; Uber Eats permits you to order fast food without leaving your home; online deliveries mean that you can shop without having to go out; airport kiosk allows you to check in without the need for human contact, developments in home cinema allow us to watch films on big, flat-screen televisions instead of in crowded cinemas.
Crises have a tendency to produce long-lasting social change. 9/11 and the botched attempts of the shoe bomber led to the ramping up of airport security to an unprecedented level, which everyone now accepts as normal and barely questions anymore. Coronavirus will probably do the same: igniting an acceleration of the automation and digital revolutions and altering how we interact with one another.
Social distancing (or physical distancing, to be more precise) is now in vogue, altering almost in an instant interpersonal interaction between people (at least for the time being). Dating, going to the cinema, going out to a pub for drinks with friends; even just the act of being social—it’s all beginning to feel like a distant memory. The new political correctness is no longer about editing racist or misogynist lyrics out of old songs, but involves artists like Carole King, Neil Diamond, Britney Spears and Dua Lipa updating their classics to encourage social distancing. Aside from the embarrassingly condescending nature of these gestures, this reveals that social distancing is increasingly becoming valorized by our culture.
Forms of greeting and social interaction that have been ingrained for centuries are beginning to be problematized. The French tradition of la bise has fallen by the wayside. Handshakes, too, may well become extinct. Even nations like Spain and Italy, known for their sociality, have been cowed and made to learn the value of personal space. Their tactile expressiveness has given way to self-preserving coldness. Alternative greetings, such as elbow bumps, foot tapping, the traditional namaste, ojigi and even the Vulcan sign have been touted as more appropriate for the Coronavirus era.
In an instant, this virus has imbued even the most mundane and fleeting of human interactions with a sense of risk and danger that didn’t even cross our minds before. Will that exchange with the cashier, that handshake with my colleague from work, that hug with my friend, that brush against a stranger on public transport, that claustrophobic ride in the lift be the fateful moment Covid-19 makes its entry into my body? We’re told not to even touch our own faces. Human touch has become fatal. “To touch is to give life,” Michelangelo once remarked. But, in the age of Coronavirus, to touch might just lead to death.
Society had already become more touch deprived and touch averse. People are touching each other less than ever before, because of increased atomisation and the disintegration of traditional families and communal and social bonds, exacerbating loneliness and isolation, damaging people’s mental health and creating a void in those hungry for connection. In the UK, half a million older people go at least five days a week without seeing or touching a soul. Fear of, or the accusation of, inappropriate touching and abuse has meant that doctors avoid comforting patients with hugs, lest they provoke legal action, that teachers definitely avoid hugging students and that workplace colleagues are increasingly thinking twice before opening their arms for an embrace.
It is no bad thing that society has become more aware of child abuse by those in authority, as well as all the other forms of unwanted sexual contact, which is unacceptable in any context. Touch can indeed be oppressive, as well as comforting—precisely because it hits us where we are most vulnerable and intimate. Hence the hand on the knee can, depending on the context, feel seductive or threatening. Yet hyper-vigilance about boundaries doesn’t create clarity in human interpersonal relations, but only more confusion and hesitation. It leads to a pathological view of human interaction, in which platonic touch is degraded and every human touch is viewed as sexual and therefore potentially violating and oppressive.
Touch is one of the five senses. It is one of the ways in which human beings make contact and form social bonds with each other. It is how lovers build intimacy. It is how families bond. It is how friends express camaraderie. It is how the sick and distressed are comforted. We like to touch and be touched. Without touch, life will become more of a cold and lifeless desert. And those who seek it will be more likely to have to get in contact with a professional cuddler in the touch industry, to satisfy their skin hunger — for a price.
The danger with the Covid-19 pandemic is its uncertainty. We don’t know whether lockdowns will last for weeks or months. Until a vaccine is developed, which, according to the most optimistic estimations, will take around eighteen months, social distancing will never fully go away, as we will always be prone to a relapse. Indeed, if recent reports are true, then we may have to endure intermittent social distancing until at least 2022.
The current state of affairs should not be normal. It should be regarded as an unpleasant yet necessary temporary sacrifice for the sake of our common health. The optimist in me feels that, after all this is over, we will get back to normal and get over this period of adversity. After all, human beings are social creatures, who crave connection. That need can never be abolished, no matter how hard it is suppressed. Yet my pessimistic side is fearful that we might become too adjusted to this new normal and that the after-effects of the virus will disfigure social life indefinitely.
When the pandemic has finally dissipated and social life has somewhat resumed, we should restore the value of face-to-face human interaction and human touch in an effort to restore our social bonds. It would be tragic if one of Covid-19’s after-effects were that society became even more atomised and socially cocooned than it already is. That might feel like a safer world, but it would also be a more inhuman one.