REVIEW COORDINATOR: Kurt Milberger
From Tactile to Tactical
The Paradox & Promise of "COVID Consciousness"
“Corona consciousness” (alternately, “COVID consciousness”) has permeated psychic and pragmatic domains globally, presenting new opportunities for, and challenges to, prospects of radical inclusivity and disability justice. On the one hand, “COVID consciousness” reflects ethics of “universal” care, comprehending the direct and indirect risks of individual and societal choices on those most vulnerable (specifically to COVID-19). On the other, it fails to fundamentally undermine dangerous and divisive discourses and biases pervading healthcare, community, and family settings. My discussion of this concept’s ethos began prior to the novel coronavirus’s emergence; yet I credit COVID-19 with bringing a particular constellation of relevant issues and possibilities to the forefront of the public imagination, ushering in a zeitgeist potentiating unprecedented (inter-)personal and collective responsibility. In this piece, I bring together diverse sources to explore sometimes-paradoxical approaches to, and motivations underlying, "flatten the curve" pandemic responses. This piece problematises appeals to the so-called “greater good” premised on ableist—and arguably eugenic—attitudes and practices that devalue the lives of, and in some cases literally sacrifice, people with disabilities (e.g., through rationing life-preserving resources and equipment).
As recently as early March, had somebody asked me how epidemics factored into my proposed interdisciplinary doctoral work on how people with non-obvious disabilities negotiate access within embodied interactions (including touch), I would likely have answered: “They don’t.” That was before the novel coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) began shifting sociality patterns around the globe. Now, the overlaps between the current pandemic and my research—which spans Critical Health, Madness/Mental Health, Sexuality, and Disability Studies—seem both critical and fraught. As I detail below, a zeitgeist-shifting “COVID consciousness” has permeated psychic and pragmatic domains, paradoxically promising both new opportunities for and challenges to radical inclusivity and disability justice prospects.
In recent months, local, national, and international responses to the highly contagious, often debilitating, and sometimes deadly COVID-19 have dominated the news, while landscapes of physical proximity and interpersonal contact have been radically reconfigured. Governments of diverse nations have severely restricted their populace’s bodies and proximal relations. Cultures and subcultures have drastically altered entrenched, seldom-questioned affiliation norms, including how members greet, spend time, and communicate with one other. Individuals have revised and, at times, altogether abandoned former habitual behaviours. “Routine” activities like going to work; shopping; exercising (indoors or outdoors); visiting relatives and friends; accessing para/medical services; going on dates (with strangers and established partners alike); and organising and attending rituals, gatherings, and events are increasingly conscientious and frequently digital. Negotiations of touch and other forms of intimate inter/activity face new challenges, imbued with life-or-death implications; outside of existing cohabitating relationships, physical contact has become not only less accessible but, in most circumstances, taboo—leading to widespread “skin hunger.”
It is indisputable that many have made substantial sacrifices—often at great personal and financial cost—to take recommended precautions to “help stop the spread” and “flatten the curve,” frequently in the name of protecting those more at risk than themselves of COVID-19 complications. Over the course of this pandemic, I have observed fewer and fewer non-immunocompromised individuals in my own circles justifying exposing themselves to COVID-19 (e.g., by engaging in unnecessary self-benefiting social activities)—a trend I have heard others echo. Initially blasé attitudes held by some—who reasoned that because they would likely survive if they got sick, they could afford to risk exposure to COVID-19—appear to have been replaced by concern about possible pre-symptomatic, symptomatic, and asymptomatic transmission to others. While not everybody is equally committed or able to follow “social distancing” (or “physical distancing”) practices to the same degree, or for the same reasons, there seems to be a general acceptance and promotion of the logic of following these guidelines.(1)
The care expressed and actualised by those seeking to prevent their own actions from jeopardising others’ health/lives in this pandemic has been remarkable in two ways: 1) because it emerged so seemingly suddenly surrounding COVID-19; and 2) because it revealed that our capacity to mobilise related resources and behavioural changes—which many denied was possible before COVID-19—evidently existed all along. The immunocompromised (whose greater risk of complications spans a range of illnesses, from COVID-19 to the common cold or flu) would always have benefited from others prioritising their “out of sight” vulnerabilities. Yet, now-mainstream imperatives, such as (potentially) sick individuals staying home from work/school/bars/etc. and/or wearing masks to prevent themselves from becoming contagious vectors, would have been considered exceptional—nay, extreme or paranoid—by most North Americans before COVID-19, and certainly lacked mass appeal.
In early April, during a Q&A following my presentation at the Society for Disability Studies conference, I coined the term “corona consciousness” (alternately, “COVID consciousness”) to describe the zeitgeist surrounding the nascent, highly contextual sense of (inter-)personal and collective responsibility ostensibly motivating responses to COVID-19 (Goldberg, 2020/04/05).(2) My discussion of factors underlying this concept’s ethos began prior to the novel coronavirus’s emergence; yet, I credit COVID-19 with bringing a particular constellation of relevant issues and possibilities to the forefront of the public imagination. For example, the minutiae of embodied interactions were rarely overtly addressed before COVID-19, making it difficult for those with non-normative access needs to request accommodations, especially in interpersonal situations (e.g., those with compromised immunity or joint issues negotiating greetings other than handshakes in formal settings without inciting awkwardness or offense). Now, customised modifications to previously-taken-for-granted interactions, including normalised handshake alternatives, are common. From mainstream media to social media, from storefront signs to Zoom meetings, people are sharing candid details of health-and-body-protecting and risk-minimising practices. Households and communities are conversing about what activities constitute (un)acceptable risk for their members. People are taking cues from “foreign” cultures (e.g., where sick people wearing masks out of consideration for others, or for other reasons, has already become normative) and sharing tips on negotiating preferred no-touch greetings, Do-It-Yourself (DIY) mask-making options, etc.
While the “horrifying global surge in domestic violence” has inspired local and international responses, few are accounting for the “touch-and-intimacy privilege” held by those currently residing with close others, as compared to those who live alone; with strangers/acquaintances; or in other settings where their only access to intimate contact is either screen-mediated or otherwise severely limited. As researchers point out, supportive social connections help prevent suicide, with suicidal thoughts and behaviors increasing with isolation and loneliness (Reger, Stanley, & Joiner, 2020). Along these lines, I am concerned about the implications of all-or-nothing “stop the spread” messaging(3) that makes no space for mitigating the fallout—including exacerbated mental health and addiction issues—of one-size-fits-all approaches to this crisis. The proliferation of “snitch lines” and legal sanctions for violations of COVID-19 distancing mandates elevates the possible consequences for individual defiance beyond social opprobrium, effectively forcing “underground” those whose non-compliance with single-issue “stay home” protocols may be justifiable for complex reasons, including competing access and survival needs.
Given the stakes, what are the costs of silencing the perspectives of those who may not be able or willing to physically distance to regulated standards for the duration of this pandemic (however long it lasts)? Moreover, what lessons might we borrow from communities and groups that have already tackled related questions and established “wise practices” (4) that we might adopt and/or adapt? For example, polyamorous communities(5) have designed functional alternatives to nuclear-family-based intimacy units, taking into consideration individual pod members’ comfort levels with different kinds of “risky” activity. BDSM practitioners have normalised conversations that enable societal defaults for embodied interactions to be replaced through negotiations based on involved parties’ needs and desires, employing risk-management strategies cognisant of community standards. “Harm reduction” workers, having learned from the failures of “abstinence-only” sex education and “just say no to drugs” campaigns, have devised more productive ways to work in communities where “zero tolerance” is simply unrealistic. And people with disabilities and chronic illnesses have long navigated different degrees of “self-isolation” and creatively constructed networks of care similar to those seemingly-spontaneously springing up now.(6)
“COVID consciousness” calls on everyone to depart from established “scripts” (Simon & Gagnon, 2003), in public and in private, in ways that could radically combat hegemonic ableism if extended. However, this collective consciousness is by no means cohesive; it is a split consciousness, containing but not reconciling divergent values and priorities. Permeating “caremongering” and other pandemic-inspired initiatives—which, on the whole, encourage “healthy” people to radically consider and act with others’ idiosyncratic needs in mind—is a COVID-19 exceptionalism that undermines the plausibility that related paradigm shifts will endure after the pandemic subsides. Amidst the rallying cries for all to do their part right now to support those in need is a general anticipation—an expectation—that doing so will (and should) enable and effect a future in which things return to “normal” (i.e., the pre-COVID-19 “status quo”) as soon as possible.
On the one hand, “COVID consciousness” reflects ethics of “universal” care, comprehending the direct and indirect risks of individual and societal choices on those most vulnerable (specifically to COVID-19). On the other, it fails to fundamentally challenge dangerous and divisive discourses and biases pervading healthcare, community, and family settings. For example, medical triaging policies can discriminate against people with disabilities, in some cases literally sacrificing them through rationing life-preserving resources and equipment (i.e., ventilators) in ways that prioritise non-disabled patients’ needs. Such ableist—and arguably eugenic—practices “based on faulty presumptions and stereotypes about living with disability” (Mykitiuk, 2020) are often justified by appeals to the so-called “greater good.”
On a more optimistic note, there is no reason that disability/social justice-oriented initiatives instigated under the banner of “curve-flattening” could not be maintained after COVID-19, both in spirit and practice, with renewed benefits. Government supports (such as universal basic incomes) could be reassessed, community-based care-for-all-who-need-it efforts continued, and platforms enabling remote access to previously analog-only employment and social environments sustained. By thus removing barriers prevalent before COVID-19, people with disabilities and impairments, as well as other constraints on full participation in different kinds of activities, could have unprecedented access to realms that were previously in(consistently)-accessible. Further, by leveraging new COVID-19-inspired templates for the explicit (re-)negotiating of physical interactions to encompass different access needs and preferences, we might expand notions of and possibilities for intimacy that stretch beyond what the majority feel most familiar and comfortable with, towards a “new normal” that explicitly includes those who were historically excluded.
How each of us will navigate the post-pandemic world remains to be seen, as does the degree to which the threads of COVID-19-era developments will be woven into our social and political fabrics. The question remains: once COVID-19 has disappeared from the headlines and faded(7) from our psyches, how can we remain conscious of our capacity to mobilise towards collective care and imbue our daily habits with the flexibility, communication, and concern with which we have approached this pandemic?(8) Moving forward, as government-mandated physical interaction restrictions ease and initial “lockdowns” end, the importance of our ongoing engagement in constructive dialogues around these issues—on individual, interpersonal, institutional, and community levels—intensifies.
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- At least for now, there appears to be sufficient social and political pressure to yield compliance on a global scale, but how sustainable is this model? As Steve Joordens, University of Toronto psychology professor comments: “It’s easy to plan video chats and phone calls when we’re stuck at home, but once people see their loved ones again, the urge to come closer than two metres will be hard to overcome” (Loriggio, 2020, May 8).
- I thank those whose insights and suggestions informed the development of this piece. Society for Disability Studies “Broadening Bodyminds, Remaking Safe Spaces” session attendees and co-presenters took up Chair David Adams's invitation to engage in fruitful post-session discussion on—in fellow presenter Rebecca Monteleone’s words—the “pushback against how medical authority has defined what kinds of lives are livable, what kind of bodyminds are acceptable and (allowable) in terms of receiving caring” and alternatives beyond traditional “social model” approaches. Stephanie Jenkins importantly asked what “non-physical touch” might look like for those unable, or possibly not wanting, to touch others during COVID-19 (and beyond), with a reminder of the many for whom hugging and hand-shaking (etc.) exacerbate chronic pain and who might therefore be relieved by reduced social pressure to engage in such common touching acts, while desiring more intimacy at a physical distance. I especially wish to acknowledge the contributions of early readers/listeners, including: Alexandra Rutherford, Jesse Ovadia, Jennifer Collins, Jordana Greenblatt, Leah Kesselman, Sandra Dyer-Ramezani, Sharoni Sibony, Susanne Pytela, Tal Davidson, and Wendy Heller; their encouragement and editorial comments greatly improved this text. I am also grateful to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) for supporting my research as a Canada Graduate Scholar.
- For example, on April 4, 2020, an emergency government alert text message ordered all Ontarians but essential workers “to stay home” unless “absolutely necessary to pick up groceries, prescriptions or go to a medical appointment” to prevent “devastating effects” including “endanger(ing) lives.”
- I thank Indigenous scholar Tracy Coates for introducing me to the term “wise practices.” J. Michael Thoms (2007) adopted this titular term in his 2007 report about the delivery of services to Two-Spirit individuals diagnosed with HIV/AIDS for the Canadian Aboriginal Aids Network (CAAN) in response to their concerns about using the more common term “best practices.” He explains that the former term “is more reflective of Two-Spirit ontology (worldview) and epistemology (ways of creating knowledge) embedded in (his) study.” The concept has since been popularised with credit to Thoms/CAAN in reference to “the interventions and protocols for violence and treating addictions that are more reflective of Aboriginal peoples’ ontology and epistemology” and, more generally, “progressive approaches First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities use to address health and wellness concerns” (Wesley-Esquimaux & Snowball, 2010). Prior to its present usage in Indigenous contexts, the term was presented—also presented as a novel alternative to the more popular concept “best practices”—by O. L. Davis Jr., who described “wise practices” as always “situated thoroughly in their context” and “recognizable” by their common usage by “ordinary individuals” in “real, specific circumstances” in a 1997 article in the Journal of Curriculum and Supervision.
- Although, ironically, rather than offering alternatives models, some of North America’s premier polyamory advocates appear to be embracing monogamy in the face of this pandemic (summed up by the March 31, 2020 Savage Lovecast teaser: “Just when you thought you understood the world, Dan chats with open relationships guru Tristan Taormino, to tell you to CLOSE IT UP. Monogamy is where it's at these days. Just for a while.”)
- As Susanne Pytela (personal communication, May 18, 2020) notes, the networks of care and communication developed as COVID-19 responses are influenced by Indigenous values and draw on the wisdom and experience of people with in/visible disabilities and chronic illnesses (e.g., those who pioneered the use of virtual working and communication tools), often without due credit. Templates for the now-global phenomenon of COVID-19 request/offer support groups organized by city/region are modeled on disability-justice-based care networks, such as groups common in chronic illness and disability online support networks. For example, one such “spoon sharing” group invites members to ask others for/about: “physical labour! (laundry, housework, moving stuff…)”; “emotional labour! (venting, sharing stories of marginalization because of disability, validating, listening…)”; rides; “online/community resources! (poems, articles, events, podcasts, movies, memes…)”; “health care providers! (doctors, specialists, bodyworkers, councillors, online & in-person support groups…)”; “food! (meals, meal prep, potlucks, delivery, company when eating…)”; etc.
- Hopefully, with as little traumatic residue as possible.
- Or, as disability justice advocate Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha frames it: “In two months or six months or a year when there’s a vaccine, will we just go back to the ableist normal? And all of these things we fought for will all the sudden be too difficult? Or is this an opportunity and an opening for there to be a sea change around us all really taking ableism seriously and remaking the world?”