Social distancing” is the phrase of the season. If the global Covid-19 pandemic does not come under control, it might very well become the phrase of the year. As we exercise caution in touching — never before has touch been so deeply put under suspicion — and hyphenated phrases like “self-quarantine” and “isolation-units” and “emergency-stockpiling” become a part of our everyday vocabulary, you know that none of them is going to have as much traction as social distancing. If it were a movie star, the phrase would already be generating festival buzz and preening itself to become the Oxford Word of the Year, taking the crown from last year’s “climate emergency”.
Perhaps, it is too early to make these predictions. Who knows what more horrors this year has to unfold? It is, after all, only March, and even though we are facing economic collapse, environmental degeneration, and biological warfare, it is telling of our times that we might still have to wait and see what else might show up. One indicator for recognising the urgency of this term is to go back to straightforward search analytics. On Google’s search engine, in the first two weeks of March, the term had a 75 per cent increase in search queries. It has been trending on Twitter consistently right alongside “coronapocalypse”, which was my favourite, but is too wordy to get traction. On Instagram, it has been thriving, competing with #washyourhands, which has enough pervert value but does not have the depth of irony that social distancing comes with — shots of people in wild solitude or stuck behind videogame consoles. Perhaps, the crowning glory (no corona puns intended) came when it started becoming a hashtag on Pornhub, accompanying the growing archive of “corona porn”, which, I know you will immediately go searching for, and I warn you to do it with caution, because once you see people in hazmat suits doing it, you can never un-see it.
But, for me, the reason why social distancing shall be the phrase of the year is because of the profound paradox it offers about our relationship with social media. For the better part of this millennium, we have been repeating ad nauseam that we are growing apart. All of us have relished the tragedy of being “alone together”, lamenting the lack of physical sociality in the age where everybody is glued to their screens. We have particularly scoffed at the digital natives who have blurred the lines between online and offline, or IRL-VR, so effectively, that their idea of being together does not obey the unities of time, place, or action. It has been interesting to see persistent calls for abandoning the device, reducing screen time, going out in the social world, meeting real-life people, having physical, meaningful experiences of social collectivity — and then, in one fell swoop, all of those voices stopped.
Now, we all want to learn how to remain socially connected in meaningful ways. All the services which we dismissed as trivial and addictive, are emerging as our new default, and lifelines to stay connected and energised enough to survive into a future when, through herd immunity and vaccination, we have overcome the health crisis. As we cut all non-essential socialising, reducing travel, and get stuck (oh, the horror!) with the people we live with, with no escape to work or theatres, people have been scrambling to find ways of being distantly intimate and socially distant.
But, perhaps, most importantly, this crisis, where all of us find ourselves suddenly vulnerable, shows how much we have neglected the needs of those who were vulnerable and unable to participate in status-quo social interactions — single parents, students with disabilities, people with compromised immunity, people who did not have resources to travel everyday to attend events, people who could not afford to disclose their identities, people who were restricted from active participation. There were so many who exercised social distancing, not as a choice, but as a way of survival, and we never paid attention to how to include them in our societies.
It is only now, when we find the majority in a state of social precariousness, that we are recognising both the limits and the possibilities of the digital in the practice of social distancing. To curb community spread, and, for our individual and collective well-being, I hope that we do find meaningful ways of getting socially distant. Once the crisis has subsided and we are regaining a sense of normalcy, this will, hopefully, also make us aware of those who we keep socially distant when we do not think of ways of connecting and socialising outside of physical presence. From here on, let us realise that vulnerability-induced social distancing is not just something that happens to other people, but we all slip in and out of it all the time, and we need to find more enduring ways of being together.
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