Here we are then, in the middle of a pandemic, and it’s odd not to know if the world as we know it is ending, or if this is a brief pause to reconnect with a simpler way of living. The truth will of course be more nuanced, more complicated than that.
Every time I think I have even my own life straight again, there’s another announcement or another cancellation or another protocol to follow or another vulnerable group to help and I’m all up in the air again. At least my jaw has finally unclenched but I’m so, so very tired, and I’m not the only one. So I’m sorry, but this is a long one, because it’s everything I’ve been thinking for days.
I find myself fascinated by the social and cultural details of epidemiology: the Austrian bar at the heart of one cluster of cases because they regularly play oral beer pong; the South Korean church that ‘immunised’ a congregation with a saline spray, and lined them up one by one, to catch the virus from the nozzle.
Like the infection itself, knowledge about it, human responses, and anxiety levels continue to hit in uneven waves. Italian doctors must have seemed absurdly paranoid a week or two ago, if all your confidence was invested in the right-wing press. The world really is a different place when you believe in the calm, measured tone of governance, the spirit of the Blitz and the quiet confidence that we’re not like other countries. I have watched a wave of panic run through care workers, days after it hit yoga teachers, a week after it hit NHS workers. I’m realising that no-one can bring you news from the future – you can only ride the wave when it hits.
I have become more viscerally aware of the heart-breaking lack of resilience in our social safety net: professionally, locally, nationally, globally. I’m conscious of the subtle and not-so-subtle intricacies of privilege modulating the way that the pandemic plays out. There are those glad that the world is ‘cleansing itself’ who’ve obviously never been disabled. There are others that have reason to worry that if they get sick, they won’t be a priority for treatment. People are already dying along predictable lines of social vulnerability.
There’s a complex interaction with each person’s existing conditions that goes beyond the NHS’s list of the most vulnerable. The hyper-vigilant might react hard and fast, but we have coping strategies that soon kick into action. Disabled and neurodiverse friends have never been invited to so many online events, and are feeling a little overwhelmed by the rise in social intimacy. Predictably, some social justice arguments are being rediscovered by mainstream liberals. Maybe flexible working patterns and digital access to events are a right rather than an optional extra after all. Maybe £94 a week isn’t actually enough to live on.
Some are home enjoying their garden and figuring out home schooling with great resources and networks, while others are working twice as hard for half the income. Some have to weigh up the cost of not-earning against the cost of viral exposure every day, day after day. On the other hand, folks with benefits in place, folks with no work at all for years, may be facing easier choices than previously thriving businesses having to pay suppliers and wages.
I am personally, professionally as well as objectively aware of the overlap between ‘key workers’ and the precariat, vulnerable labour force. I’m a small but vital part of a team who care for one young disabled woman and her mother. We’re all doing the dreadful balancing of when and how to work, given that we don’t all get sick pay, we don’t all get income protection, and we have to buy our own PPE. Cheering from balconies won’t pay the rent of delivery drivers who fall sick. It won’t create face masks for hospital cleaners. It doesn’t help me decide whether going to work is a manageable risk. I have lost at least 70% of my income so far.
We will emerge from this into a landscape none of us can predict. The opportunities for ‘consolidating’ the social safety net into fewer schools and respite centres are as great as the justification for a universal basic income. And too many people’s idea of a modest life is still a privilege unavailable to many.
Meanwhile, yoga teachers are re-discovering why they chose to work in visceral close contact. Online teaching can feel lonely. The upskilling and cognitive and emotional load for those holding space this way isn’t entirely recognised yet by those tuning in.
In the rush to get online, not enough teachers are appreciating the difference between connection and broadcast, between community and access-to-all. But students are, intuitively if not overtly. If students of bodily practices are going to move online, they have done it already. Despite the popularity of online, cookie-cutter, universalist and broadcast, ‘follow along at home’ instruction, more than ever people are missing the simple magic of breathing and moving, side by side, within community. Those who were always broadcasting universalised faux-wisdom, trading the charisma of a winning smile and a normative body to room after room – those instructors are making money for now. Later they will be competing alongside Yoga with Adrienne, YogaGlo and Kino McGregor, and I honestly wish them luck.
Those who can figure out how to simulate the feel of a small group, established, tailored class online will be least visible of all, because they won’t be putting it out via Facebook Live. Anyway, we’ll all be heartily sick of that and Zoom and Microsoft Teams and Skype by the end of this. I can already sense how my first in person teaching session will feel after all this. I find myself dreaming of walking into the room, of placing my hand on a shoulder, of rolling out mats one by one. I just have to do everything I can to help those village halls, independent studios, small collectives, and special schools survive until then. All of them. And of course the students too.
My events and my income are dropping off my schedule one by one, month by month and I’m spending hours a day on Zoom, over-weaving the webs that connect us. I’m trying to breathe and to rest in stolen moments. I’m checking in with friends, colleagues and loved ones one after another like beads on my own personal rosary. After all, none of us know how long this will last.
The real winners of a long-term lockdown and perhaps the new world that follows it, will be those who can walk the line between performance and community. Those with modest name recognition, and the skills and context that allows them to take advantage of this opportunity, but also a real, observable authenticity: measured by skin in the game and something to lose. It’s Joe Wicks bringing PE to the nation every morning, not some celebrity workout. It’s Alex Horne giving us all stupid things to do while stuck at home with his own kids, not crying in a Hollywood mansion.
I pray that this is already bringing about a declining tolerance for celebrity self-indulgence and for corporate bailouts. Airlines and private schools and mega-pub chains survive from month to month like the rest of us. But they don’t get regularly lectured on the importance of having 3 months savings in hand. Nor do they get asked to dip into those savings before they can access a bailout. Can we emerge from this with less tolerance for every billionaire asking for a government handout in one breath, and crowdfunding to support his zero-hours contracted workers in the next? Can we at least be smarter in future about who we give our money too, when we have some to spend?
Landlords will not be added to official lists of key workers anytime soon. That should tell us something.
Over and again I realise how interconnected we are. Walking back from our government-mandated daily exercise, we drop into our local mechanic to offer a little work to tide them over, but they’re closing, uncertain of the infection risk of climbing in and out of customer cars all day. I wonder how that will affect my one-day-a-week working out of the house: I don’t want to be stranded if I break down a half-hour from home.
The garage is a family business that I would trust with my house keys and my life. This is their 99th year in business. Hidden within our conversation, held across a regulated social distance, is the unspoken understanding of a small businessperson speaking to a household of freelancers.
This is not heroism. This is the everyday and honourable work that keeps us all moving. These are the ways we look out for each other. I hope when the dust settles, they will reopen. I hope when the dust settles, they are all safe and well.
Eat the rich, but wash your hands first.
New shared rituals join new ways to share spaces. I watch and learn from the customer in front of me at the service station: use the disposable gloves from the diesel pumps to pump petrol, and to hold your bank card as you pay. Walking in the park, I dance with others through the passing places that maintain social distancing. By the end of the summer, these new rituals will be ingrained, and generations after us will smile at our funny little habits. We hope.
On the other hand, there are so many ways we fail to adapt. There’s an NHS worker in the supermarket who can’t be medical staff, given the way she’s picking up things on shelves and putting them back down, passing her Costa coffee from hand to hand.
I say that and I know I still can’t stop touching my face. I say that and I know I won’t stop hugging my partner. Visceral contact is part of what makes us animal, part of what makes us human.
I wonder how deep does hand-washing run in the contagion-anxiety of a species? I don’t know how to keep you safe, and I know we cannot survive alone. So I keep washing my hands and changing my clothes. I’ll keep using disposable aprons that I know don’t really work. We wash our hands so that we can justify holding our loved ones.
This familiar alchemy brings back discordant memories for queers who grew up in the 80s and 90s. We were all so used to not knowing what would keep us safe. We became very practiced at keeping our distance 80% of the time. We also know the holy slippage of bodily fluids that makes the isolation worth it.
Nothing we do will change the fact that getting old and sick is the best outcome to life we know, because the alternative is dying well before that.
Until one of us gets sick, I won’t stop curling up with my husband.
Until one of us gets sick, I won’t stop going to work with those that really need it.
Until one of us gets sick, I’ll stay on the phone, on Zoom, on Skype, I’ll keep reaching out along the threads that hold us.
This is the benediction.
This is the hidden, hard-won beauty of this moment.
In the contagion and the connection, the need to reach out and be held runs as exactly as deep and urgent as our risk of contamination.
The many threads that bind us.
The unseen labour that we depend on.
And while we don’t yet know what it has cost us, perhaps, just maybe, we could use this moment to reflect on that, and on what kind of world we would have to build in order to remember it.